Coconut Culture


My childhood memories growing up in Guyana are ones of family, love, laughter, good food and friends. My homeland is situated in the North of South America, and is the only English-speaking country on the continent. Guyana is an ex-British colony, and gained its independence from Great Britain in May, 1966. Guyana means “Land of Many Waters” due to the myriad of rivers and waterways which flow throughout the country creating a lush and still pristine Amazonian paradise. It is also known as the “Land of six ethnicities” each one contributing to the flair and flavor of Guyana.These are the native Amerindians, East Indians, Africans, Portuguese, the British and the Chinese. Today, there is a very large percentage of mixed race Guyanese. It is truly a melting pot of people and cultures. I myself am multi-ethnic and proud of my four heritages.

Coconuts are found everywhere in Guyana. A favorite memory of mine is going to the Sea Wall. En route, my dad would pass by a coconut vendor on Forshaw Street, in Queenstown who parked his horse pulled cart on the same corner every afternoon to sell fresh coconuts. We drank them from the shell and then eagerly had them cut open with a swift swipe from a sharp machete. A “spoon” would be carved out from the outer fibrous husk for us to eat the sweet, soft coconut meat. It was a treat on a Sunday evening.

Almost every restaurant serves cold fresh coconut water. Many Guyanese buy coconut water from their habitual vendor several times per week and store it in glass bottles in their refrigerators. The coconut culture is strong here. Coconut plantations are found all along the Coastal areas as well as in the major agricultural areas in the Essequibo and the Correntyne regions. Young freshly picked coconuts are sold from carts on the street to customers day and night. The water is cool and  refreshing and, is valued for its regenerative properties. Coconut water is a gratifying drink in the humid weather. Coconut oil is also widely used for cooking and for skin and haircare.

Coconut milk is often used in Guyanese cuisine. The rich milk is obtained by grating a mature coconut and and adding hot water to the fibers to extract the rich “milk” from the nut. Curry dishes, especially ones with shrimp, crab and fish often contain coconut milk. The dish “Metemgee” is a creole stew of ground root provisions such as sweet potatoes, yams, eddoes and cassava. Green plantains  and dumplings are added and “cooked down” in coconut milk and salted beef or pork. Fresh fish is also steamed atop the vegetables to complete the dish. Salted cod fish or fried  fish are also commonly served alongside.

Guyanese “cook-up rice” is also a much-loved meal. The coconut milk simmers with beef, a piece of salt pork, peas or beans and spices in this rice dish. A “one- pot wonder” which sticks to the belly and evokes all sorts of comfort. Some steamed ochroes or pumpkin, or spinach is also a familiar add- in ingredient in this rich delicious dish… rice and beans , Guyanese style!

But, where did our coconut culture come from? How is it so imbibed in the Guyanese culture?

The  origins of the coconut are highly debated. The coconut or Cocos nucifera probably introduced to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands in the Indian ocean by the ancient Austronesians coming from the Pacific islands. The gene flow, was most likely aided by these ancient people  who carried the coconut on their journeys. Owing to its hardy nature and high resistance, the coconut has been able to survive in a variety of regions. These range from subtropical dry to wet through tropical, to very dry and wet forest zones. It can resist high heat, high pH, low pH, insects, salty soil, sloped terrains and can even grow in poor soil. They usually start bearing fruit in their 4th year of maturity.

Researchers have found two genetically distinct strains of coconuts which have been massively cultivated. First in the islands of the Pacific Ocean basin such as the Philippines, Malaysia & Indonesia, and  secondly, along the peripheries of Indian Ocean basin being Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Laccadives. Coconuts are classified into tall or dwarf varieties. The tall being more common place and valued for its “copra” to make coconut oil and “coir” for rope making. The Polynesians called the 2 varieties niu kafa ( triangular and oblong) having a thick fibrous husk and niu vai (rounded) and containing an abundance of sweet water when unripe.

The coconut has been a sea voyager both on boats, canoes and ships throughout time. It is also been its own buoyant vessel and has floated across seas and oceans arriving to far destinations in the currents. Sea faring people prized coconut cargos for their long trips to assure hydration and nutrients from the portable water vessels. The calorific meat of the coconut is an excellent source of calcium, magnesium and potassium. It is also high in electrolytes and is said to have the same electrolyte levels as human plasma. Apparently, the story of the  “Mutiny of the Bounty” was caused by Captain Bligh’s harsh treatment of crew for stealing  prized coconuts from the ships stock during a Pacific crossing. Proof that the coconut was a highly valued cargo.

During a trip to French Polynesia, I was astounded by the way in the coconut is used in almost every part of the native culture and daily life. The  coconut is referred to as the “Tree of Life” and is used for making houses and shelter, food, medicines and water hydration. The Polynesians have mastered the use of the  coconut wood, palm fronds and fruit effectively. Nothing is wasted. The cocoa fat is used as a moisturizer, sunscreen and protectant for skin and hair. Coconut husks can be used as a fuel to burn like charcoal.  It is a major part of their life and economy.

The arrival of the coconut to our shores in South America and the Caribbean probably came via the Europeans who came to colonize the New World.  They were absent from the Atlantic shores and the Americas at the time of the discovery of the New World by the Europeans.The Portuguese took them to West Africa and the Spanish probably brought them to the Caribbean and Latin America during the slave trade, as sustenance on board the ships. The Spanish also took the coconut to the Pacific coast of Mexico from the Philippines. Today, we all prize this miraculous nut. It has been adopted into so many cuisines, and lifestyle and has fed and nourished countless societies for generations. The renaissance of coconut oil and its virtues as a healthy saturated fat is now being hailed all over the world as a miracle food. The coconut is a symbol of island life and paradise all over the world today. How lucky are we to be living so close to this highly prized tree; often just a step into our backyards!

I thought about so many wonderful coconut recipes to share. Trust me I have many. From curries, cakes, breads, pies, drinks and bars; coconut is hands down one of my favorite cooking and baking ingredients. I settled on this simple, quick and easy to make recipe. I have been making these since I was about 8 years old. It’s a childhood favorite and brings back so many lovely feeling every time I make them. I hope you will enjoy them a much as I do.


COCONUT GRATED FOR CULINARY USE


COCONUT COOKIES  or COCONUT BUNS

INGREDIENTS

1 cup margarine

1 cup white sugar

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups grated coconut

1 tsp almond essence

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

Zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup raisins * optional

Optional Topping: 2 tbsp brown sugar, mixed with 1/2 tsp cinnamon and a 1/4 cup grated coconut

METHOD

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, cream margarine and sugar until incorporated.

In a second bowl, mix flour, salt, baking powder, spices and grated coconut. Set aside.

Add eggs one at a time to margarine and sugar mix, until fluffy. Add the almond extra and combine.

Incorporate the dry ingredients and raisins if using to the batter, folding everything in with a wooden spoon or spatula until well combined. This should be a soft dropping consistency.

There are two ways to bake these buns and each one results in a different texture. So, depending on the texture you prefer, you can try that approach. The muffin pan gives a firmer texture on the exterior and a cake like texture inside. The sheet pan method will produce a more cookie texture as they spread out while baking.

Muffin pan:

Makes 18 muffins or 24 mini muffins

Spray a muffin pan with baking spray

With a spoon or cookie scoop, fill each portion with a dollop of the mixture. and top with a sprinkle of the topping mix.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes until golden brown.

Mini muffins will cook in 20 mins.

OR

On 2 large cookie trays

Makes about 24-30 cookies

Scoop coconut mixture  with a cookie scoop onto an ungreased pan or a silpat.

Make 3 rows and 4 columns per pan leaving adequate space between them as they will spread out during baking.

Bake for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees. or until golden brown. If you prefer a crisp texture, you may leave them in for an additional 5 minutes. Be careful not to overcook them as they will crisp up once they cool.


These can be kept fresh in a sealed container for about 5 days if they last you this long.

With a spatula, lift the coconut buns up while still warm and move to a cooling rack. If they cool completely with being lifted, they may break as you try to remove them.

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