Flavor Investigator: Coconut

There is no better food than a coconut to give visions of the tropics upon first bite. Coconuts have an overall profile of fruity, milky, sweet with slight notes of melted butter, green and wood. Coconuts come from the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) and are members of the family Arecaceae (palm family).  The name coconut is actually derived from the 16th century Portuguese and Spanish word coco meaning head of skull as the coconut shell resembles a head.

Despite its name a coconut is not actually not a nut but instead a drupe. If you recall from our previous article on mangoes, a drupe is a type of fruit which has a hard outer shell enclosing the seed. There are three layers to this fruit, the exocarp which is the outermost layer (must be removed), the mesocarp the fleshy middle layer and the endo carp, a woody fibrous layer which we commonly identify as the coconut.

Sources of Coconut

Coconut is a versatile fruit as it is able to be used in multiple forms. One of these forms is dried, unsweetened, shredded coconut. It is more brittle than sweetened coconut and provides better control of dishes sweetness for the user.  Coconut milk on the other hand is produced by shredding the meat of fresh coconut and mixing it with hot water. It is important that one does not substitute it with a lower fat as most of the flavour is in the fat.  In contrast, cream of coconut is prepared from a combination of coconut cream and sugar. It is best added to confectionary preparations such as pastries and icings.

Major Compounds Responsible for Coconut Flavour

If you have ever taken a bite out of a coconut you will notice that it has an inherent creaminess contained within. However, you might be wondering how this is possible considering it does not contain dairy milk. Well the class of compounds which are responsible for this creaminess is lactones. As the name suggests these compounds are derived from the Latin phrase for milk, lac lactis. Lactones are cyclized esters meaning they are esters which have formed a ring structure. In the case of coconut, the lactone which dominates the fragrance of coconut is gamma-nonalactone but more commonly referred to as coconut lactone. This chemical is characteristically known for its creamy coconut flavour with fatty, milk, buttery notes. It is also used as a flavour addition for tropical fruit complexes containing peach, apricot and honey.

Unique Flavour Combinations of Coconut

  • Coconut and Beet- Beets are traditionally seen in European cuisines but that does not mean they cannot be paired with tropical flavours. Coconut milk is creamy, sweet and slightly fruity and can be paired with beets after they have been roasted for a long period. Try combining the two in a soup!
  • Coconut and Dill- This pairing is common in Indian cooking as Laos dill is treated more similarly to a vegetable. Dill lends itself well to other ingredients which are creamy due its subtle acidity and clean flavour. A beautiful combination for a fish sauce.
  • Coconut and Egg –Eggs are a little difficult to describe as it they are complex flavour. One could describe them as meaty, sulphurous and slightly metallic but that description does not give them justice.  Toasted shredded coconut added to simple scrambled eggs adds sweetness, nuttiness and creaminess.

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