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The amazing coconut

PERHAPS it’s because they’re everywhere that they have become easy to ignore — yet coconut trees are an important part of Philippine foodways. A talk on the Filipino Food Month’s page called “Beyond Buko Pie” explains the intricacies behind the ubiquitous coconut tree, and how it serves as a pillar for both our history, culture, and tastes.

The talk was given by entrepreneur and editor An Mercado Alcantara, who also serves as innkeeper at Casa San Pablo in San Pablo, Laguna, where she holds culinary coconut tours. San Pablo was, and still is, the site of several coconut plantations — but we get ahead of ourselves. Ms. Alcantara begins her talk by discussing how the coconut’s structure (the young green skin is waterproof, while a second, fibrous layer makes it possible to float) helped it travel by sea and propagate itself along shorelines all over the world. This same structure was useful for the long sea voyages taken by the Austronesians who would populate islands in the Pacific (including our own).

It was on one of these islands that Ferdinand Magellan landed 500 years ago. His chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, writing from what is now Guam, noted that the locals were able to get bread, wine, oil, and vinegar all from the same fruit. When the Spaniards came to colonize the Philippines, the coconut spread inland, farther away from the seashores that receive them, due to a decree issued by a Spanish Governor-General: that all native “indios” should plant 200 coconut trees in their lifetime. Ms. Alcantara says that the law was put in place for two reasons: one, the colonizers needed more than enough food to keep the locals from having revolutionary fires stoked by hunger; and, two, because the fibrous husk of the coconut was integral to the galleon trade (the husks were used to caulk ships).

Ms. Alcantara, meanwhile, pointed to the American colonizers for the further spread of the coconut. The Americans employed the plantation system in the country, so rows and rows of coconut trees were planted on large tracts of land. Entrepreneur Franklin Baker established a plantation in San Pablo, and many others followed suit, giving the Laguna town a wealthy base. By the 1920s, the US was the biggest supplier of coconut to the world, and a large proportion of it came from the Philippines. Today, Ms. Alcantara says, the glamor of San Pablo’s past is long gone (save for a few heritage houses, pointing to nearby Villa Escudero across the border into Quezon Province as an example of that opulence).

The glamor is gone, she said, “Except for our food.”

There are more edibles that can be made from the coconut tree than Pigafetta wrote about. The tree has three edible parts: the flowers, the fruit, and the heart.

The sap, collected from the stems of the flowers, ferments into tuba or coconut wine (a process that takes mere hours), which is then distilled into the fiery alcoholic drink, lambanog. Not distilling the tuba would turn it into vinegar in about 30 days, while coco aminos (a substitute for soy sauce) forms when the sap is fermented and mixed with salt. From the sap also comes coconut syrup (when it is cooked) and sugar (when it is cooked until granules form).

Ms. Alcantara poked fun at a few young ones in the audience, whom she said would have a hard time differentiating between a buko and a niyog — the difference is in the age, with the buko being the young fruit. She showed photos of coconuts being cracked, with the mala-uhog buko (a form of young coconut whose “meat” is soft and mucus-like) mixed with juice, then the mala-kanin buko, described as rice-like, which is used for salad and noodles (like in the noodle dish pancit kalabuko). Mala-katad buko is hard, almost like leather, and scraped out and used for buko pie and other baked products.

Niyog, meanwhile, is the mature coconut which also has three forms in stages. The first is alangan, which we suppose could be considered a “pubescent” coconut in between the buko and niyog stages. It has to be grated to be used, and is sometimes candied. Niyog, a full-fledged ripe coconut, is grated out; and then there is the tumbo, a coconut “pearl,” a bit like a shoot, which is eaten candied or fresh.

From the niyog comes grated coconut meat, and dessicated coconut (when niyog is grated, sterilized, and dried — also the source of the aforementioned Mr. Baker’s fortune). Dessicated coconut can be powdered, turning that into flour. Meanwhile, grated coconut is used to extract coconut milk: there’s coconut cream from the first pressing (kakang gata), and coconut milk from the second pressing (plain old gata). As a tip, Ms. Alcantara says that kakang gata, more intense in flavor than its second sibling, is added last to dishes for more of a kick. Even the sapal   the coconut meat left after the milk pressing —  can still be used for other purposes. “Walang nasasayang (nothing is wasted),” she said.

The heart of the coconut, finally, is cooked (most famously in lumpiang ubod) or pickled. Harvesting the coconut heart — which is the topmost part of the tree where the leaves sprouts — kills the tree, which is why in some provincial towns, ubod is only served when a tree is past its economic life or has fallen.

“Every province in the Philippines that has coconut trees have their own versions of gata dishes,”  said Ms. Alcantara.

As an example she uses her hometown, pointing to ginataang hipong palakpakin (shrimps cooked in gata), which can be further processed into pinaete (the same, but pounded, although most modern households would run it through a food processor), and finally, kinilaw which is raw fish “cooked” without fire by using vinegar — coconut vinegar, of course.

In other houses in San Pablo, they make sinugno, a dish of grilled tilapia cooked in coconut milk. There’s also kulawo, a smoked gata vinaigrette.

She then went on to desserts, discussing baked goods like macaroons (no doubt developed through American-era home economics classes). But then there are completely native delights like suman (a sticky rice treat) with coco jam, and a porridge made with coconut milk and glutinous rice balls. You can also sprinkle your champurrado (a chocolate and rice porridge) with gata instead of dairy milk.

In all these examples, Ms. Alcantara reflects on how the coconut is woven deep into our lifestyle, noting that the dishes are made with some form of coconut, plus ingredients that are easily available. (In the case of shrimps, San Pablo is known for its seven lakes as well as its proximity to Laguna de Bay.)

“The dishes,” she said, “reflect the story of our own landscapes.”

Catch more of these food talks on the Facebook page of Filipino Food Month — Joseph L. Garcia

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