Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Samoan food - Coconuts

Ok, so I mentioned yesterday that bananas are ubiquitous in Samoa. That may be true, but they still come second to the coconut tree. Those suckers are everywhere (they love hot humid climates, sandy soils and can tolerate a fair degree of salinity; sound like a tropical beach to you?). Furthermore, almost every part of the coconut palm can be utilisied. It's utterly unsurprising that they're used quite extensively in Samoan cooking.

Coconuts have a husk and an inner "stone". In supermarkets and groceries across the developed world we really only ever see the "stone". But it's the husk that tells you how ripe the fruit is. This picture shows a good spread across the degrees of ripeness you find in coconuts as they're picked here.

The green husks indicate nice young coconuts. At this stage the white flesh inside is still quite tender and relatively thin. It's quite tasty, although the main culinary use of coconuts this young is for drinking. You can buy a niu, or drinking coconut, almost anywhere in Samoa. Take a machete to a chilled, husked coconut and chip away a small hole and drop a straw in it. Simple as that.

As coconuts age, the white flesh thickens and the juice turns somewhat bitter (and the husk yellows and browns as evidenced in the picture). Most Samoan cooking makes use of these older coconuts, and primarily for the production of coconut cream. Coconut cream is very prevalent in Samoan cooking. Yams are commonly baked in coconut cream; skin and chop some yams and wrap them in aluminium foil, making sure a good splodge of coconut cream goes in with them. Throw them in a relatively hot oven (~200° C) for about 45 minutes to an hour. Serve them as is and sprinkle a little salt over them to give them a bit of bite. Makes for a great snack. We tend to have this at work once or twice a week for morning tea.

There are two other notable uses of coconut cream in Samoan cooking. There's palusami, which a few of us made a little while ago and there's oka. Oka is the Samoan version of a dish that exists the world over. You'd probably know it as ceviche; raw seafood "cooked" in a marinate with a strong citrus base. Samoan oka typically has coconut cream, lime juice, diced onion and cucumber and maybe some diced tomato as well. The raw seafood is almost always tuna. Oka is wonderful stuff.

If you're going to make oka (and you should at least once) you really need to make your own coconut cream. There are lots of different ways of making coconut cream but the one I've chosen is one from a Samoan source (but I haven't tried it myself, google an alternative if you're worried).

Coconut cream
  1. Scrape the flesh from five coconuts into a baking tin.
  2. Bake in the oven until the flesh browns. Don't make the oven too hot.
  3. Add about a cup of water and squeeze through a cheesecloth.
  4. Discard the flesh, the rest is your cream.

You will need
4 pounds (just under 2kg) of raw fish (preferrably yellowfin tuna)
4–5 limes
4 tomatoes, diced
2 cucumbers, diced
1 small onion, diced
5–6 small chillis, diced (optional but don't be a wuss)
Coconut cream (just over half of what the above recipe should yield)
  1. Cut fish into bite-sized chunks and place in a mixing bowl.
  2. Squeeze limes to make juice, and pour the juice onto the fish — just enough to soak all of the fish chunks.
  3. Marinate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight in the refrigerator.
  4. Add diced vegetables and coconut cream, stir, and serve.

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