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Coconut Bonanza

June 25, 2008
Celia Sin-Tien Cheng


While researching coconut foods, I was invited by Amy Besa, co-owner of Filipino restaurant, Cendrillon (now closed), to learn how to make fresh-squeezed coconut milk.

Sous chef Perry Mamaril, the “coconut expert,” walked me through the entire process and then showed me how to make suman (steamed rice cake) with the milk.

Coconuts are available at the West Indian grocery stores in Brooklyn. Here we see mature coconuts. Perry uses a knife to shave off the hair.

He then uses the back of the knife to strike hard the center of each coconut, until it breaks into halves. Once opened, the juice is drained.

And the coconut halves are washed with water.

Then he sits on the “horse,” which is the grater — a stool with a blade with serrated edges attached. Quite phallic!

And very skillfully, he grates the coconuts by circling the coconut halves over the blade in quick, smooth motions to produce shreds of coconut meat.

Here’s the resulting pan of the snowlike shreds of four coconuts.

Squeezing the coconut shreds naturally produces milk (high in oil and sugar content). To create a greater volume of milk, Perry boiled water and poured it over the shreds, letting it soak for a couple of minutes before squeezing again.

And here you have freshly squeezed, incredibly fragrant coconut milk.

Demonstrating a dish that uses coconut milk, he made a special suman (steamed rice cake) with purple diket (glutinous) rice from the rice terraces of the Philippines. The rice is heirloom (grain passed down from one generation to another) and is grown organically and purchased at fair trade prices.

The heirloom rice is first soaked. It can be soaked overnight, but we only soaked it for about half an hour, so it would be al dente when steamed.

Perry first heated the fresh-squeezed coconut milk in a large wok, and then added the drained heirloom rice. He cooks until the coconut milk is completely absorbed and evaporated. The only other ingredient is coarse sea salt from the Philippines.

The cooked rice is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

The suman is served with a sauce made from cooked coconut shreds and palm sugar. An absolute delight!

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