Consumers across the globe are now spending billions purchasing coconut water from brands such as Vita Coco, O.N.E. Coconut Water and Zico. While the taste holds up for most of these brands, nothing beats the water from a young coconut that is freshly picked and drunk while in the Caribbean.
The rest of the world has finally opened up to the wonders of coconut water. However, Caribbean residents have long touted its nutritional value and naturally delicious taste. Here, roadside vendors offer up piles of chilled, freshly picked coconut, ready to be enjoyed with the flick of a machete and a straw. Many residents will also have a fully laden tree or two at home.
Coconuts grow on a tall palm tree that requires a certain level of climbing skills to retrieve the hearty bunches of fruit at the top. Drinking water straight from the coconut is one of those unique experiences that characterises life in the tropics. The young coconut is preferred for drinking, as this is the time when it is believed to contain the freshest, nutrient packed juice. Some people drink the juice from the dried coconut, however the older coconut tends to produce less water and the taste is noticeably more acidic.
All edible parts of the coconut are consumed. The tradition includes fashioning a ‘spoon’ from the husk of the coconut, to be later used to eat the coconut ‘meat’ – the soft jelly-like insides of the young nut. Coconut water is a natural thirst quencher and energy booster, rich in Vitamins C and B, calcium, iron, copper and potassium. In its purest form, the liquid is rich in electrolytes and carbohydrates as well as restorative amino acids. It is commonly used to rehydrate sick persons as well as provide relief from some gastrointestinal ailments.
Pure coconut water is naturally sterile but can go bad within hours once extracted from the shell. This quickly results in an acidic flavour that reeks of spoilage. The pasteurization methods and added sugar used to preserve the juice for commercial sale in other countries is frowned upon in the Caribbean where people prefer the pure taste of coconut water without any additives.
In order to keep the juice fresh and maintain its nutritional value, coconut water must be frozen and stored at below 18°C which allows a shelf life of up to six months. Once thawed it must be kept at or below 4°C, and must be consumed within 10 days.
When the coconut is matured and dried, the hardened inside is grated and used to produce coconut milk and coconut oil. Coconut oil is used in hair and skincare products to provide natural nourishment to moisturize and hydrate the skin. The coconut milk is used to flavour certain dishes, particularly vegetarian meals and as a milk substitute. It adds a rich, creamy taste to meats, fish and soups, supplying natural essential fats when used in cooking. Flakes from the grated dried coconut are used to make a variety of sweet desserts that form part of the cultural palate in the Caribbean.
In addition to roadside vendors, natural coconut water is bottled and sold in supermarkets throughout the Caribbean region. Though the industry has been challenged by various plant diseases in recent years, the demand for coconut water by both locals and visitors has led to mitigating measures in the industry to keep the supply flowing.
Ursula Petula Barzey
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