Coconut water – the perfect tonic for the tropics

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

On our way back from Pantai Kerachut one scorching afternoon, my friends and I were contemplating what to order to quench our thirst after an exhausting hike, aside from the obvious choices of carbonated drinks. After some deliberation, we decided to go with one of nature's wonders – fresh coconut water that is easily available in Penang. Thus, from the exit of the national park in Teluk Bahang, we made haste to the nearest nondescript roadside stall offering just that.

We ordered tall glasses of coconut water, chilled with ice and slightly sweetened with syrup. The drink was truly refreshing! In the glasses, there were also thin sheets of young coconut flesh that just melted in every mouthful. I could not think of any drink that would be more rewarding than what we had just consumed.

coconut © Adrian Cheah

The coconut is a fruit of the coconut palm (Cocas nucifera, "nucifera" meaning "nut-bearing"). The name coconut comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word "coco", which means "monkey face" (maybe because the three dark holes on the top of each fruit bear an uncanny resemblance to the face of a monkey).

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

Do you know that the largest seeds known in the botanic kingdom is that of the coconut? What we refer to as "coconut water" actually provides all the necessary nutrients for the seed to sprout into a healthy young seedling, much like the yolk in an egg would. Thus, it is easy to understand how potent and nutrient-packed coconut water actually is!

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

As a tropical island, Penang is fortunate to have an abundant supply of fresh coconuts from plantations within the state as well as from Kedah, Perak and Selangor. Some varieties are imported from Thailand and Indonesia. Although it is a simple drink to prepare, coconut water can be enjoyed in a variety of ways in Penang. You can have it "neat", sweetened or unsweetened, served chilled or at room temperature, straight from the fruit or poured into a glass. Some prefer having it slightly sweetened with a red rose-flavoured syrup (pandan-flavoured at times) plus grated tender coconut flesh that looks like strands of white noodles (locally known as "kelapa sagat" in Malay).

coconut © Adrian Cheah

Among all the available varieties on offer, I love the aromatic pandan (screw pine flavoured) option best. When the supply in Malaysia is insufficient as there is a strong demand for this variety, they are imported from our Thai neighbour as well.

Does drinking coconut water have any drawbacks? Well, some caution that the diuretic properties may cause mineral loss. Some people, like Mum, believe that consuming large quantities of coconut water daily can make one go "soft" in the knees ("nooi kha hong" in Hokkien). Whether this grandmother's tale holds water (pun unintended), no one can truly say for sure.

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

The "cool stuff" in coconut water

Coconut water is an ideal thirst quencher, enriched with all the good "stuff". Let us take a closer look at this natural elixir and its humble properties.

Although the appearance of coconut water is almost translucent and clear, it is highly nutritious, enriched with phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. It contains magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, calcium, dietary fibers, vitamins B1, B2 and C. The water has very little fat and contains no cholesterol or uric acid.

coconut water © Adrian Cheah

The sugar and vitamin B that provide energy, make coconut water a stress buster. Its diuretic property aids in removing toxins and it 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"!

Do you realise that coconut water is a natural skin tonic, providing hydration when applied directly to the skin? The coconut is also used in 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.

Health and fat-conscious individuals will be pleased to know that the delicious young coconut meat is cholesterol-free with a very low fat content.

The flesh of a mature coconut contains saturated fats and triglycerides with some monounsaturated fats but no cholesterol. Santan (coconut milk) is extracted from the grated flesh and it is an essential ingredient in local cooking especially in curries, Nyonya kuih and local dessert broths.

Where to buy fresh coconut water

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

coconut © Adrian Cheah

Fresh coconut water is available at roadside stalls dotted throughout Penang or at food courts and at some restaurants. You can also buy it from wholesalers such as Anba Coconut at the end of Lorong Abu Siti (off Jalan Burmah). This well-stocked shop receives a steady stream of customers throughout the day. Coconuts are also available at most supermarkets, often de-husked and shrink-wrapped prettily. With the convenience of online deliveries like Foodpanda, GrabFood and Delivery Eat, you can have some delivered right to your doorsteps with just a click away.

Comb the internet and try recipes with coconut water. Make some jelly with it, add it into cocktails or even in cooking and encounter new flavours. You could be in for a pleasant surprise.

sea coconut © Adrian Cheah

Fresh sea coconut, a slightly different variety, is available at the Pulau Tikus market in the mornings as well as some wet markets and supermarkets. The smaller fruit is purchased for its almost translucent flesh that has a crunchy bite. The vendor would de-husk the fruit and pack the pods for you. To enjoy them, carefully peel off the soft brown skin to reveal the flesh. Some cooks will use it in a dessert cooked with snow fungus, red dates and dried longan. The canned version is available at supermarkets, often in an orangey-brown hue sweetened with sugar.

Further use of coconut water

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

Saving lives

I clearly remember the scene from one of Jackie Chan's movies, Who Am I, where his character fashioned an intravenous (IV) procedure out of a coconut and some tubing onto an injured buggy racer in the African wilderness. Is this life-saving stunt medically possible?

An article published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine in January 2000, reported a case in which electrolyte balance was successfully restored in a patient by treating him with an IV of coconut water, which flowed directly from the coconut.

Having read that, it is plausible to believe stories that during the Pacific War of 1941-45, soldiers from both sides of the conflict used coconut water drawn directly from the fruit as plasma transfusions on wounded soldiers when IV saline solution was in short supply. Thus, it is not surprising that coconut water has been dubbed the "fluid of life".

However, according to Mark Graber, professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, coconut water is not an optimal IV solution for rehydration because it does not have enough sodium content to stay in the bloodstream. He cautioned that it could cause elevated calcium and potassium levels that could be dangerous.

Cleansing the soul

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

During the Thaipusam festival in Penang, thousands of devotees seeking blessings, line the route of the silver chariot bearing the sacred statue of Lord Murugan. They smash coconuts on the roads as the chariot approaches, a symbolic act of purification to cleanse the chariot's path as well as their souls. Done with full devotion, devotees surrender their ego by smashing them at the feet of the Lord to reveal purity within. The coconut water represents abundance and the white flesh, a symbol of purity reborn.


The next time you decide on what to drink to slake your thirst, opt for the health-giving coconut water instead of sugar-loaded soda pops. Not only will the “dew from the heavens” (as Hawaiians would call it) moisten parched throats, it will beautify, soothe and cleanse, just like a complete therapeutic treatment all rolled into one!

Coconut © Adrian Cheah

PS: Go coconuts for coconuts on World Coconut Day, celebrated on 2 September annually since 2009. The aim of the celebrations is to bring coconuts into the spotlight and recognise their importance and benefits — not just health-wise but economically too.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah 
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Updated 29 July 2021