THE COCONUT IS KING at an impressive native cooking tour that takes guests on a journey through the life cycle of a coconut and presents its edible parts. We explored the nuances of flavor as the coconut ripens and matures, discovered the amazing dishes and food products created at different stages, and remembered just how proud we are of our homegrown dishes. We came away eager to bring more coconut flavors into our daily lives.
Led by innkeeper An Mercado-Alcantara, the tour packs in a substantive lecture, tasting stops under coconut trees, native cooking stations where guests can learn heirloom coconut milk or gata recipes, plus a delicious lunch of coconut dishes. We were shown the coconut’s development stages from young (mura), ripe (buko), “tween” (alangan), and mature (niyog). At every stage we tasted the fresh meat, as well as the delicious food products that come from that stage, like nata de coco (from buko juice), coco jam (from coconut milk), and desiccated coconut (from mature niyog). The Casa San Pablo Native Cooking Tour is a multi-layered educational experience you must try. Here’s a quick glance at the myriad of ways we can cook, eat, and drink coconut.
Emerging from a spear-like spathe, the coconut flower is an unexpected surprise, rarely seen in bloom because it blossoms so high up the palm tree’s crown. At this stage, some of the most amazing coconut flavors are created from the flower’s sap. Extracted by slitting the stem and allowing the sap to flow out into a bamboo tube, the virgin sap is called tuba or coconut toddy, a light whitish liquid. If you drink it before fermentation begins (immediately after collection or packed in ice to prevent chemical breakdown) tuba is sweet, refreshing, and non-alcoholic, best taken at breakfast. The virgin sap can also be turned into coco syrup and sugar by heating and stirring for hours until the toddy turns into a thick, brown, sticky syrup and eventually, with further heat and stirring, crystalizes into coco sugar. But more often, tuba ferments as soon as it comes in contact with the bamboo container where, within a matter of hours, it turns into coconut wine. If allowed to ferment for longer than a day, it turns into coco vinegar. Tuba can also be distilled and flavored to become lambanog or coconut vodka.
YOUNG COCONUT WATER (BUKO JUICE)
This still has to be one of life’s sweetest pleasures: the first sip of coconut water, straight out of the coconut. Each sip is more nutritious than whole milk (less fat, no cholesterol), healthier than orange juice (lower calories), and has more potassium and less sodium than commercial sports drinks. It is also used for cooking: as broth for binakol, or in adobo sauce (instead of toyo). Fermented, buko juice becomes nata de coco, a high-fiber soft jelly used in cold desserts.
YOUNG COCONUT FRUIT
Experienced coconut harvesters knock on the young green coconut shells to discern what stage the fruit is in. The more hollow the sound, the younger and thinner the coconut meat is inside. When cracked open, you will see that the meat of a very young coconut can be watery, soft and jelly-like called mala-uhog or it can have the consistency of boiled rice called mala-kanin. At this stage, the fruit is ready to eat fresh out of the coconut shell, spooned out with improvised scoopers from the coconut husk. It may also be served with heavy cream as buko salad or grated in long strips and laced over halo-halo. Allowed to develop a little more, the ripe fruit becomes leather- like, mala-katad, the ideal soft yet firm consistency for the famous San Pablo buko pies.
MATURE COCONUT MEAT (NIYOG)
When coconut meat develops into half-an-inch thickness, it becomes the source for an amazing variety of food flavors and products far beyond food. Coconut cream (kakang gata) and coconut milk (gata) are extracted from grated meat. The native kusinera does this by hand, squeezing gently. Gata is used for savory dishes with fish, chicken, or beef, like ginataang tulingan (wrapped in banana leaves and spiced with dried kamiyas), ginataang manok (cooked with papaya and sili leaves), or ginataang baka. It is also used for so many of our native kakanin, such as sinukmani, sapin-sapin, kutchinta, pitchi-pitchi, palitaw and espasol. Coconut cream is also turned into the childhood favourite, coco jam.
Shredded and dried, coconut meat is called desiccated coconut, which is available sweetened or plain, and used for macaroons, chocolates, and cake toppings. Coconut meat is also the source of edible and healing oil. A dry process using heat from the sun or a kiln produces cooking oil. A wet process, involving the breaking down of oil and water in raw coconut, produces extra virgin coconut oil.
TUMBONG OR TUBO NG NIYOG
At the last stage, when the seedling finally sprouts to become a new tree, there is a surprise ending. If you crack open the coconut, you will find a “pearl” inside. This is called tumbong or tubo ng niyog, a spongy growth which can be scooped out and eaten fresh or candied in simple syrup and served as topping for halo-halo.
The heart of palm is a much-coveted ingredient from the coconut tree. It is found at the top of the tree trunk, within the center of the tree crown; removing it will cause the tree to die. Sliced into thin strips, ubod is best served as a filling for fresh or fried lumpia.
CASA SAN PABLO IS A BED-AND-BREAKFAST IN SAN PABLO CITY, LAGUNA. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE NATIVE COOKING TOUR THROUGH THEIR WEBSITE WWW.CASASANPABLO. COM. FOR INQUIRIES, YOU MAY CALL 0917-8126687.
By An Mercado Alcantara
Photographed by Mike Cuevas of Studio 100