Where Coconut Predominates in the Menu
By “Awake!” correspondent in Belize
PROBABLY you are acquainted with the use of coconut in sweets and pastries. But here in Belize, formerly British Honduras, coconut finds its way into practically every type of meal—breakfast, dinner, supper and even teatime.
One reason for this is the ready availability of coconuts in this tropical climate. And there are other reasons why the coconut is used in a wide variety of food preparation.
There is coconut milk—not to be confused with the saccharine water inside the nut. The milk comes only after the pulp is grated and squeezed. Coconut milk serves as a tasty addition in preparing rice, biscuits and stews.
From the milk comes coconut oil. The process of extracting the oil is a common sight in many homes here in Belize. It provides a means of livelihood for many older women. But we do not mean that this is an easy task. Actually it calls for strenuous effort. How so?
It is not unusual to find elderly women at the market wharf as early as five o’clock in the morning. Here sailboats bring in the nuts from the cays, and dories (dugout canoes) fetch them from up the river. Before the coconuts arrive at the market, they are husked of their fibrous outer covering. In Belize City it is common to observe a lady with a carrying sack leaning over the edge of the river and shouting to men in the boats: “Uno have nuts fi sell?” (“Do you have coconuts to sell?”) To this the boatmen reply: “Uno no know fi we biznez da cocnut?” (“Don’t you know that our business is coconuts?”) After making her purchase, she places the coconuts into a three-wheeled bicycle cart, paying a small fee for delivery to her home.
The next step is to crack or chip the coconuts. The Creole way of doing this is to use a long machete knife. The coconut is held in one hand and the hard shell is slowly chipped off. Skill is necessary to land the machete blows in such a way as to remove the shell without cutting the tender meat inside. If you are unskilled with a machete, you can place the coconut directly on a flame for a moment until it expands and the outer shell bursts, making for easy removal of the meat.
Next the white, fibrous flesh is grated. In this locale graters are often simply lard tins with nail holes punched through them and mounted on wooden frames.
After the coconut flesh is shredded, a small amount of warm water is added to the snow-white gratings. This helps to loosen the fat. Then the gratings are squeezed to extract the milk. This liquid is set aside overnight to allow for separation of the fat from the water. The next day the thick creamy fat is carefully spooned off the top. The leftover gratings constitute a fine feed for chickens.
But how will this thick, white substance produce clear, amber-colored coconut oil? This brings up the next step, which we call the frying process.
Here in Belize it is generally more convenient to fry the fat on an open-fire hearth, using an economical fuel, wood. A low, steady heat keeps the milk bubbling and brings about further separation of the fat. At this stage it looks like curdled milk. Gradually solids crystallize and the fat turns transparent. The taste-tempting aroma of coconut fills the air and activates the taste buds of those present. It is necessary to remove the mixture quickly from the fire to ensure that it will not take on a burnt flavor. Three to five coconuts produce one pint of oil, depending upon their size and quality.
Coconut oil has many uses. It is especially good for frying fish and dishes prepared with corn dough or tortillas. When Jehovah’s witnesses meet for conventions here in Belize, a special treat at the food-service stand is panades. To make this delicacy, corn dough is pressed into tortillas. These are filled with cooked and seasoned fish (usually shark), folded in half and sealed around the edge. Next they are submerged in golden coconut oil. The aroma fills the entire neighborhood. Some nearby families send their children over to get in line early so as not to miss out on this delicacy.
Have you ever tasted Creole bread? This is another specialty that involves the coconut. In place of cow’s milk, the thick creamy milk that comes from coconut gratings is added to the yeast flour dough. One coconut is necessary for two pounds of flour.
Good Creole bread is in demand commercially. Some women make a living for themselves or help their children to get an education by baking it daily or weekly. Recently a group of Christian women here baked it for several Saturdays and contributed the funds to the construction of a hall for Bible study.
Would you enjoy the zestful flavor of coconut in rice or bread? How about fish stewed in coconut milk, or a variety of coconut candies? Even water drunk right from the shell of the green coconut is refreshing and healthful. If you ever visit Belize, we invite you to enjoy the friendly people, the warm sun and a tasty menu in which the versatile coconut predominates.