Late into my recent trip to Tonga, I was seized with two obsessions related to the coconut: a preoccupation with pina coladas, and a nagging worry that I was going to get hit on the head by a coconut.
The legendary three-headed coconut tree. The sign on this tree reads “Branched Coconut Tree, Ministry of Tourism”. Tongatapu.
Of course, as soon as I got home I tried to look up statistics on death due to falling coconuts. The widely-reported figure of 150 deaths per year (in the world, not Tonga) turns out to be more of a guess than a statistic. And anecdotal evidence from conversations with people living in Tonga seemed to confirm that. No one who I spoke to could recall anyone ever getting hit on the head with a coconut. And despite the prevalence of coconut trees, I never noticed the locals looking worriedly above them for falling missiles. In fact, coconut trees form the important upper story of vegetation in traditional farming plots, where the villagers may spend much of their time.
As for the pina colada, I wish I had managed to work more of these delicious drinks into my itinerary in Tonga. I tasted my first Tongan pina colada at Mounu Island Resort in Vava’u. The secret to this delicious drink is fresh coconut cream. The cream was usually made daily, by using a sharp metal instrument with a serrated blade to scrape out the insides of a mature coconut. The coconut flesh and any of the liquid in the nut is then squeezed and strained through the coconut husks (traditional) or a kitchen towel. I found an excellent video showing this process on youtube: How to Make Coconut Cream. Coconut cream can also be made or obtained through a variety of other methods (using hot water, cooking over a stove, using coconut cream concentrate – try “Tropical Traditions”, using canned coconut cream, etc.)
Here in the states, to make the Tongan-style coconut cream, I suggest the following procedure:
1. Purchase a brown coconut (try Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or a Thai supermarket). When selecting, shake the coconut to make sure there is still some liquid inside. If there is no liquid, the coconut is too old to use for coconut cream.
2. Poke the coconut in one of the “eyes” with an awl or a screwdriver to drain the liquid. Save it in a glass. If you’re an experience coconut opener, just skip to step three and drain the liquid after you open the coconut.
3. If you’re good with a cleaver or large knife, feel free to open the coconut in a professional manner. If you’re like me, it might be easier to put it into a bag or cloth and break it open with a hammer.
4. Scrape out the white meat with a serrated coconut tool (find them at your local thai supermarket, at a gourmet specialty shop, or online: gourmetsleuth.com). Alternatively, remove the white flesh from the brown husk in chunks, and chop it up in a food processor or blender. A third option is running the coconut pieces through a juicer, where it will separate into coconut cream and the leftover shredded solids (skip step 5).
5. Combine the grated coconut flesh with the liquid and strain by putting inside a kitchen towel or cheesecloth and wringing out the cream.
6. Refrigerate immediately. The fresh cream should be used within 1-2 days.
If you’re in Los Angeles, you can also pick up fresh coconut cream at one of my favorite holes-in-the-wall: The Beverly Hills Juice Club. (Skip steps 1-6!)
According to the International Bartender’s Association, a Pina Colada consists of: 3 parts pineapple juice to 1 part white rum and 1 part coconut cream. However, take my advice, courtesy of Mounu Island Resort, which makes–hands down–the best Pina Colada I’ve ever tasted.
For two drinks:
1. Blend 2 handfuls of chopped pineapple
2. Add double shots of 10 Cane Rum and Malibu and 2 large handfuls of ice. Blend again.
3. At the very end, top up the blender with coconut cream (approximately 1.5 cups). Avoid overblending the cream.