A Coconut Journey from My Desk in Toronto

Sometime in February, when powder-white snow covered everything in Toronto, I sat looking over the oak and pine trees in my yard with a tall glass of coconut water in hand. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” my boyfriend remarked. “For just over a dollar, we get to enjoy a can of coconut water anytime we like, regardless of where you are in the world.”

That observation has stuck with me since – and has played no small part in my desire to find out more about the history of the foods I love and heartily consume. I have found myself scouring through world history books at the library and spending hours into the late night browsing Internet archive databases, containing, among others, a 1906 paper from The Philippine Journal of Science titled “On the Water Relations of the Coconut Palm,” written by American scholars onsite at the San Ramon Farm in Mindanao province – a study with incredible detail on native coconut farming methods, calculated harvests over time, and hand-drawn illustrations of the insects and pests threatening coconut plantations in the early 20th century Philippines.

Over dinner parties, friends talk excitedly about the farm-to-table movement and sustainable sourcing of ingredients like it’s the latest line of fashion. And in certain ways, it is – global distribution has now allowed products from every corner of the world to land in supermarkets and online grocers at reasonable prices, while encouraging consumers to also learn more about the process that brings far-flung fruit and vegetables into their kitchen. It’s a lot to take in, but the upside to seeing coconut products in North American produce aisles is that the humble cocos nucifera – our ‘tree of life’ – has found new audiences among serious lovers of food.

In the past year, I’ve prepared bibingka espesyal for noche buena, chicken adobo made with coconut milk and soured with tamarinds (a twist on adobong manok sa gata), silky coconut custards and flaky macaroons – all to great reception amongst friends and new family who have never tried our distinctly Filipino ways of enjoying coconuts. At Lamesa Filipino Kitchen in Toronto, Chef Rudy Boquila’s team recently shared a snapshot of a dessert they’ve been working on: coconut pandesal bread pudding with ube de leche, redolent of syrupy purple goodness. “My oh my, this sounds divine!”, said one; “I’m dying” and “You had me at coconut…” said others. In Toronto’s competitive dining scene, Pinoy twists on cooking with coconuts take the win!

When I sit to enjoy meals with others, I also tend to share fun facts about food. Did you know, for instance, that the trunk of a coconut tree is actually composed of thick stems that overlap each other? For those who have procured fresh heart of palm, or ubod ng niyog, from trees felled by storms (regrettably sometimes by hand), what a treat; with a flavour profile similar to water chestnuts, these have been long enjoyed in lumpiang sariwa (fresh spring rolls) for their crisp, refreshing crunch, with a dollop of piquant peanut sauce.

As the venerable food writer Doreen Fernandez notes, “the coconut does indeed serve the Filipino palate from birth to death.” I wondered if ubod was still harvested this way in the Philippines. In my quest to find out, I discovered another study with proposed alternative methods for producing ubod from seedlings, allowing trees to mature fully, alongside expanding markets for pickled ubod overseas.

I then also learned about the development of coconets by the Arboleda family in the Visayas’ Bicol Region. Created solely from fibrous coconut husks, often thrown out in large-scale processing facilities, these incredibly strong nets are now marketed as ‘biodegradable geo-textiles’ — essentially, all-natural woven coconut mats embedded along riverbeds and rice paddies to prevent soil erosion. Truly, locals making the next day better!

Back in Toronto, I cap off an evening research session with an article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer titled “What we can get out of our coconuts.” Despite all there is to be proud of with Filipinos’ use and enjoyment of every part of the coconut tree – from leaves used to wrap kakanin (rice cakes), tree sap fermented into native tuba (toddy), or coconut juice transformed into nata de coco (jelly) – the Philippines also has much room for growth in establishing itself as a global leader in sustainable coconut production.

We already know the world loves coconut recipes (25 million Google search results), beauty-bar tested hair and skin care products made with coconut oil, and dozens of brands of electrolyte-rich coconut water. The question now is, where does the Philippine coconut’s journey go from here?

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