Coconut water – the perfect tonic for the tropics

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

On our way back from Pantai Kerachut, my friends and I were contemplating what drink to quench our thirst after an exhausting hike, aside from the obvious choices-100 Plus, Coke or Kickapoo. Why not coconut water, we thought, so coconut water it was.

We headed for a nondescript stall in Teluk Bahang and ordered four tall glasses of coconut water, chilled with ice and sweetened with syrup. The young strips of coconut flesh melted in our mouths like butter and the clear drink was simply refreshing. I could not imagine any drink more rewarding than coconut water then. Not only is coconut water a thirst quencher, it is also enriched with good stuff, with some going as far as to call the "fluid of life". Let's take a closer look at the humble coconut drink.

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

To start with, a coconut is a fruit of the coconut palm (Cocas nucifera, nucifera meaning "nut-bearing"). The name coconut comes from a Spanish and Portugese word coco, which means "monkey face." It is the largest seed known in the botanic kingdom. What we refer to as 'coconut water' actually provides the necessary nutrients for the seed to sprout into a healthy young seedling, much like the yolk in a chicken egg. So you can imagine just how potent coconut water is!

As Penang is blessed with an abundant supply of coconuts, this otherwise simple drink is served in a variety of cool and refreshing ways.

You can have it 'neat', sweetened or unsweetened, chilled or room temperature, straight from the fruit or poured into a glass. Some prefer a cocktail of coconut water and rose syrup with noodle strands of tender and juicy young coconut flesh (known locally as kelapa sagat).

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

Health and fat-conscious folks will be pleased to know that young coconut meat is not only delicious but cholesterol-free, with a low fat content.

There's also an interesting pandan, or screw pine flavoured variety from our Thai neighbours that is pretty popular with the locals.

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

Where to buy

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

Fresh coconuts are usually bought off wholesalers like the one off Burmah Road, opposite Penang Plaza, where you can buy coconuts in bulk, cheaply. Coconuts are also available at most modern supermarkets. Here, the fruit has been de-husked and shrink-wrapped. 

As mentioned previously, coconut water is not only nutritious, it is enriched with phytonutrients which includes vitamins, minerals and humont.

It also contains magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, calcium, dietary fibers, vitamin B1, B2 and C. The water has very little fat and contains no cholesterol or uric acid.

The meat of a mature coconut contains saturated fats and triglycerides with some monounsaturated fats and no cholesterol. Santan (coconut milk) is extracted from the grated meat and is an essential ingredients in curries, Nyonya cooking, liquid desserts and kueh (local cakes and sweets).

The sugar and vitamin B that provide energy, make coconut water a stress buster. Its diuretic property aids in removing toxins and is touted as a blood purifier. This quality could well make coconut water the next new product in the multi-million dollar market for "sports beverages"!

Did you know that coconut water is a natural skin tonic, providing hydration if applied directly to the skin? Coconut is also used in brand-name cosmetics, toiletries and shampoos. The Body Shop even has a coconut perfume, which is described as "a warm and sweet fragrance, suitable for women who enjoy wearing comforting, exotic scents". Biondetta's range of "Sinfully Good Skincare" includes a perfume called Coconut Cravings.

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

In agriculture, coconut water is used as a growing medium in tissue culture as it is a growth regulator. It supplies useful compounds such as nicothinate acid, auxin, gibberellin pyridoxine and thiamin. Research has shown that applying coconut water to tea cutting may improve rooting success. The effects of these growth regulators to human health are areas that need further research.

Does coconut water have any drawbacks? Well, some caution that the diuretic properties may also cause mineral loss. Some people, like my mother for instance, believe that consuming large amounts of coconut water can make one go "soft" in the knees. Whether this grandmother's tale holds water (pun unintended), no one can say for sure.

Saving lives

Coconut water has the same level of electrolytic balance as humans have in their blood. Not surprisingly, this particular characteristic has given coconut water its title as the "fluid of life". This is no empty boast. During the Pacific War of 1941-45, soldiers from both sides of the conflict regularly used coconut water drawn directly from the fruit as plasma transfusions on wounded soldiers. Remember the scene from the Jackie Chan movie Who Am I, when his character fashioned an IV out of a coconut and some tubing on an injured buggy racer in the African wilderness?

Cleansing our souls

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

During the Thaipusam festival in Penang, thousands of devotees seeking blessings, will line the route of the silver chariot bearing the statue of Lord Murugan. They will smash coconuts on the roads as the chariot approaches. This act purifies and cleanses the path the chariot takes. Devotees believe that coconut water represents abundance and the coconut flesh, a symbol purity.

The next time you decide on what to drink to slake your thirst, opt for the health-giving coconut instead of a sugar-loaded soda pop. Not only will it moisten parched throats, it will beautify, soothe and cleanse, just like a complete therapeutic treatment!

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah 
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