BY PATRICIA BIANCA S. TACULAO
Throughout Philippine culture, coconuts or buko are a large part of our cuisine. This is because its fruits are a versatile ingredient to work with. Its subtle yet distinct flavor can also elevate almost any dish, whether it’s sweet or savory.
Plus, the fruits contain both meat and juice that can be transformed into other products that transcend the original flavor of the coconut.
So it’s almost no surprise that almost every region in the Philippines has its way of using coconuts, and their other parts, in various recipes.
For this year’s Filipino Food Month, An Mercado Alcantara, the founding editor of Good Housekeeping Philippines and Working Mom who is also the innkeeper of Casa San Pablo in Laguna, puts the spotlight on coconuts and shares some ways on how they are used in local cuisines.
A quick look at the origin of coconuts
It is still unclear where coconuts came from. Botanists claim that it hailed from Papua New Guinea and made its way to other islands in the Southeast Asian region. Over time, it made its way to India and other areas such as the Pacific region where it became a big part of Hawaiin culture.
One reason behind this, according to Alcantara, is because coconuts can float. So when our ancestors voyaged from one area to another, coconuts were a part of their inventory. Not only did they have a source of food that could last for long periods, but they also had a source of refreshment.
But in the Philippines, the coconut became the source of an industry when it was forced as a colonial crop by a gubernatorial edict in 1642. Since then, the coconut began to be an important commercial agricultural crop.
Harvesting and processing coconut sap
Apart from its fruit, the coconut tree also has other parts that can be harvested and turned into other products that elevate Philippine cuisine. This is the sap from the coconut palm tree.
To extract the sap, Alcantara says that farmers or harvesters need to climb 20 to 30 feet above the ground to reach the top of the palm tree where the coconuts are located. Then, the tip of the bud is cut off and sliced before attaching a bamboo canister or a similar container that will catch the sap that’s dripping out.
“Freshly harvested sap, called tuba, is kept cold and can be consumed immediately. This is different from the alcoholic tuba that we know. Fresh tuba sap tastes sweet and mild,” Alcantara said.
If the sap is boiled at 100 degrees Celsius and allowed to evaporate until thick, the coconut sap can be turned into coconut syrup which is used as a natural sweetener in several desserts. And if the syrup is cooked further until most moisture evaporates, the syrup can be turned into coconut sugar.
But cooking the sap isn’t the only way to process coconut sap. Alcantara said that it can also be fermented for a week or so to make tuba and lambanog. If the sap ferments for 30 to 45 days, it can be turned into coconut vinegar.
Another product that can be made from fermented coconut sap is coconut aminos. This is made with sea salt to produce a salty, savory seasoning.
Some common dishes with coconuts
The most popular way that coconuts are used in Filipino cuisine is when it’s mixed in buko salad, a dessert where various fruits such as buko and pineapple are mixed with kaong, nata de coco, and cream to create a depth of flavor and texture in every bite.
Shredded coconut meat is also used in other desserts such as macarons, buko pie, and more.
But when they reach a mature age, locally known as niyog, when the green shell turns brown and starts to become hairy, the meat can be ground into gata or coconut milk which is used in dishes like Bicol express, laing, and various ginataang gulay recipes.
Apart from the meat from the fruit, coconut hearts are also edible. These are found inside the crown of the fronds of the coconut palm tree at the topmost part of the trunk.
These are only some of the products and dishes that can be made with coconuts. With the right creativity and imagination, it can be used to create new recipes that could enhance its flavor and eventually become a significant part of a culture, much like it did in the Philippines.