What, you may wonder, can I possibly write about food from an uninhabited atoll in the middle of the Pacific?
Actually, food figures hugely in the experiences of most cruisers who stop in Suwarrow, thanks to an incredible tradition of hospitality by the atoll’s caretakers. This year (and hopefully for years to come) the caretakers were John and Vero Samuela who came north in May from Rarotonga for six months on this isolated outpost. Before them it was the popular Papa Joane and his nephew Baker.
In our case, after a day to sleep off the passage, we and the other boats in the anchorage were invited ashore for a luncheon to welcome the new arrivals and say farewell to those departing. The meal was grilled fish, marinated raw fish, coconut crab, breadfruit, rice and coconut pancakes, every dish (except rice) derived from local resources. Over the course of our ten-day stay we partook of an evening potluck to celebrate the reconstruction of the beach hut and another welcome/farewell lunch just before we left, not to mention many coconut pancakes that seemed always to be sitting on the table for snacking.
Coconut palms pretty well define tropical cruising. Only in our two seasons in the Sea of Cortez did our land view not include the waving fronds of coconuts. We Westerners are inclined to take the coconut for granted, seeing coconut milk as an ingredient for occasional recipes and coconut cream as the stuff of Piña Coladas and Painkillers. As likely as not, when we need it, we get it from cans.
In reality, the coconut palm is a most amazing plant, every part of which contributes to the often-subsistence living of peoples of the tropics. The leaves can be used as thatch, plaited to make walls and roof tiles, woven to make hats, baskets, and plates, and peeled to make brooms and skewers. The tree’s wood can be cut into boards to make framing for houses, and the husks of the nuts provide a nearly endless fuel for cooking fires.
But it is of course, the kernel of the nut itself wherein the richest gifts of the coconut lie. When the nut is green (and when tapped it sounds solid), it is perfect for drinking. For islanders it is like having a water fountain/soda machine wherever they might be. All they need to do open a drinking hole with a machete and drink the refreshing coconut liquid straight from the nut. Inside a green nut, the meat is soft and custardy, and it can be scooped out with a spoon made from a bit of broken shell. A ready-made natural thermos, the unhusked green nut will keep for at least a week and enabled the Polynesians to make many of their long-distance canoe voyages.
A mature coconut produces the white meat for food, coconut milk, coconut cream, copra and coconut oils. This nut will keep for about a month if kept cool and dry, so it too supported long distance travel. The liquid inside a mature nut is coconut water and can be drunk like you can a green nut, but by now the meat has solidified into the white flesh with which we Westerners are most familiar. Coconut milk and cream do not pour forth ready-to-use from the coconut but are produced by grating the white flesh and squeezing it through cheesecloth (or more traditionally the fibers of the husk). For the richest cream this meat is wrung “as is”, but the shredded meat can also be steeped in hot water for about a half hour first: 1 cup of coconut meat in one cup of hot water for coconut cream or in 2 cups of hot water for coconut milk. The latter is the stuff of soups like Callaloo (Galley #3), and Thai curries, and the cream is what enriches French Polynesia’s Poisson Cru (Galley #28) or Pina Coladas.
The shredded coconut meat familiar for cakes and macaroons is prepared from a whole coconut that has been roasted in a 250 degree oven for an hour. Crack open the shell, remove the meat by tapping the shell with a hammer, peel off the brown skin and grate, at which point it is ready to use or freeze. Dry this flesh further and you have copra from which coconut oil is extracted. Despite the waning use of coconut oil in processed foods, the copra industry has been, and indeed still is, a major source of income for tropical islands.
Lastly there’s the coconut that has begun to sprout into a new tree. At this point, the milk inside has turned into a kind of cottony mass known as “candy floss”, … which is what those yummy coconut pancakes were made of.
On Anchorage Island at Suwarrow, pretty near every inch of land was covered with coconut palms, the products of which just pile up since there isn’t anyone around except coconut crabs to keep up with them. John and Vero could just walk out and pick up coconuts in any of the above stages at any time. Be aware, however, that in every group of inhabited islands that we have visited -- no matter what country, no matter what sea – coconut trees, even the most isolated ones, usually belong to someone, and casually taking coconuts from those trees is like taking money from someone’s wallet. Cruisers however can easily buy or trade for coconuts with locals, and they are always available in tropical markets. Folks back home, however, with only supermarket options available may have a little trouble tracking down anything beside the mature brown nut and preprocessed coconut products! Beware, sweetened coconut in the baking aisle is not a substitute for fresh grated meat nor is Coco Lopez one for real coconut cream.
Fresh Coconut Cream
Fresh Coconut Cream is not the same thing as Coco Lopez which has been sweetened. Markets in the Pacific do stock unsweetened coconut crème in UHT boxes, so perhaps tha will begin to show up in Stateside markets.
Steep 1 cup of freshly grated meat of a mature coconut in 1 cup of hot water for 30 minutes. Pour through cheesecloth and squeeze.
For very thick cream, do not steep in any
water and merely wring the fresh coconut flesh in the cheesecloth.
Fresh Coconut Milk
Canned coconut milk and coconut milk powder available in the supermarket do a reasonable job of substituting for the real thing in most recipes.
Steep 1 cup of freshly grated meat of a mature coconut in 2 cup of hot water for 30 minutes. Pour through cheesecloth and squeeze.
In a pinch you can re-steep the coconut a
second time, although the milk produced will be thinner and less rich.
Vero’s Coconut Pancakes
The day after our first taste of coconut pancakes several of us went ashore for some cooking lessons from Vero. Vero’s measurements were a little loose, but we spectators concurred on amounts as we went along!
3 coconuts that have begun to sprout to
produce about 2 cups of grated “floss”
Note: Should you underestimate on the sugar, these would probably be great with a dusting of powdered sugar to sweeten them up.
Virgin Islands Painkillers
Some friends recently let us read their copy of the “Caribbean Rum” book(I failed to note the actual title!) that has been for sale since before we left home. I’d never looked at it before but was surprised when I did how many brands of rum there were not to mention how many great rum-drink recipes. I was stunned, however, when I didn’t find included the Virgin Islands signature cocktail -- The Painkiller. Tssk, tsk, tsk. This drink is FAR superior to a piña colada which I have never much like, and was invented for bars that didn’t have electricity for noisy blenders. Strongly associated with both White Bay Sandcastle’s Soggy Dollar Bar and with the Pusser’s Rum, here’s how we made Painkillers on Whisper & Tackless II,…i.e. we vastly prefer Cruzan Rum to Pusser’s. Usually made with sweetened Coco Lopez Coconut Cream, image how good it would be with the real stuff (just remember to sweeten it a bit.)
1/4 cup Cruzan Gold Rum