The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol

By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?

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Worker at a coconut processing plant, Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaysia


Better coconut milk will revolutionise Singaporean cuisine. That, at least, is the belief of Lee Eng Su, a Singaporean chef, who has spent months on small-holder plots in Malaysia tasting different coconut varietals.

The fruits of his search will soon be put to the test, when The Coconut Club, his new restaurant on Ann Siang Hill, launches with its two signature dishes, nasi lemak (coconut rice) and cendol (a coconut-milk iced dessert).

Coconut milk is generally seen as the poorer cousin of coconut oil and water. Coconut oil is feted as a “superfood”  by many nutritionists, while packaged coconut water has become a billion-dollar industry driven by electrolyte-sapped athletes.

Coconut milk, by contrast, has a much narrower global appeal. Yet it is a fundamental ingredient across South-east Asia. In Singapore, where it is also known as santan, its Malay name, every ethnic group uses it in both savoury and sweet foods, from Chinese laksas and Indian curries to Malay desserts.

Yet decades of market-driven cost-cutting in the local food scene has commoditised it. “Hardly anybody in Singapore uses fresh coconut milk anymore,” admits Eng Su, who graduated in 2005 from the French Culinary Institute in New York—now called the International Culinary Center—and then worked in Manhattan as a sous chef before opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv (since closed).

In keeping with contemporary food movements—including single origin, heirloom and heritage—that place a premium on sourcing quality ingredients, Eng Su identified a coconut strain and worked out a supply chain that will soon deliver a freshly-squeezed, premium coconut milk to Singaporean palettes.

But, with his $10+ nasi lemak priced at more than double the market norm, the question remains: is better coconut milk worth the fuss?

[Full disclosure: I have known Eng Su and his two restaurant partners, Lee Chan Wai and Kamal Samuel, since we were teenagers.]

***

Eng Su’s interest in coconuts was sparked off in late 2014 at I Eat Nasi Lemak, an annual convention in Kuala Lumpur that showcases Malaysia’s best nasi lemak vendors.

Eng Su had hitherto eaten mostly the mass market nasi lemak common across Singapore and in parts of Malaysia. This consists of standard ingredients—coconut rice, ikan bilis (anchovies), sambal chilli, fried egg, fried chicken, fried fish—mostly sourced from a central kitchen and cooked on site.

I Eat Nasi Lemak revealed to Eng Su two delightful facets of the craft nasi lemak industry. The first is the preservation of forgotten dishes, such as ikan tempoyak, a sour, spicy, catfish curry, whose yellowish hues betray its eponymous ingredient. Tempoyak is fermented durian, a thick paste still made only in small batches by cottage industries in rural Malaysia. (Durian, incidentally, could be the only food which smells better after fermentation.)

The counterpoint to this tradition is the relentless innovation occurring in corners of the nasi lemak world. Some vendors fry quails instead of chickens. One makes his sambal chilli from fried catfish. One sells a version called “vegetarian but sedap giler”—vegetarian but crazy delicious.

And of course, the rice. Some use short grain, others basmati. Some boil it with whole pandan leaves, others shred the leaves, producing a green-flecked rice. Depending on how much coconut milk is used, and when it is introduced, the eventual rice could be richer and heavier or lighter and fluffier.

So energised was Eng Su by these endless permutations that he became obsessed with perfecting his nasi lemak.

***

Much about the coconut’s history is a matter of debate. The popular origin theory—emerging in the Indo-Southeast Asia belt, from where it drifted around the world—is disputed, with some suggesting multiple origins.

Its name, meanwhile, may have come from Pacific Islanders via colonial explorers, or it might derive from the Spanish/Portuguese coco, grinning face/grin/grimace, a reference to the three indentations on the fruit’s bottom.

The earliest known reference to it is from the 6th C Byzantine traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes (literally Cosmas who sailed to India) in his book Topographia Christiana.

Botanically the coconut tree is a palm and its fruit is a drupe, similar to those of the coffee, mango, almond, pecan and peach plants. Drupes, which have an outer fleshy part surrounding a shell with a seed inside, are biologically different from real nuts, such as hazelnuts and chestnuts, which have hard shells surrounding a seed. (The culinary definition of nuts is broader and includes legumes like peanuts.)

An easy way to distinguish drupes from real nuts is that the drupes—like almonds and pecans—would have had an additional fleshy layer around them when on the tree. The real nuts—like hazelnuts and chestnuts—appear as they did on the tree.

Coconut trees are usually classified as either tall or dwarf. They take 15-20 years to reach peak production, at which point the most prolific produce up to 75 fruits per year.

For such a solid tree, the coconut has surprisingly thin fibrous roots, which grow outwards and never penetrate deeply. Like other palms, it has a root system more characteristic of grasses. These roots somehow, remarkably, support the tree as it withstands strong sea winds and bends sinuously, like a flexible straw, when in search of sunlight.

Male and the much bigger female flowers appear on the same inflorescence. Most coconut palms are cross pollinated although some—like the variety The Coconut Club is using—are self pollinating.

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Coconut flowers

The coconut tree fulfils so many different human needs that it has been mythologised by many cultures. Consider its role in Malaya, where it is known officially as pokok kelapa but colloquially as pokok seribu guna, or the tree of a thousand uses.

Malayans drink young coconut water and the sweet, intense palm sap, known as air nira, which can also be fermented to produce tuak, a Malayan toddy. Coconut oil, meanwhile, has traditionally been used as a skin moisturiser.

The coconut’s white flesh is prepared and consumed in many ways. My favourite is serunding, freshly grated coconut fried with spices such as coriander, tamarind, lime leaf and galangal, to produce a scrumptious, maple-coloured floss. Just add rice.

On occasion people here eat the palm hearts and the coconut’s “apple”, both of which are biological curiosities—and assassinations. Palm hearts, the inner core, can be harvested only by stripping the bark and killing the tree of a thousand uses.

What is known as the apple, meanwhile, is a spongy white mush that appears within the coconut’s cavity once it has fallen to the ground and started germinating. The apple grows by absorbing the old coconut’s water and its nutrient-rich flesh; and in turn it provides the emerging green shoots with energy.

When harvested at the right time, just before the shoots become self-sufficient photosynthesisers, the apple is sweet and delicate, like a giant, coconut-tinged rasgulla. To get to it, you have to crack open—and kill—a sapling.

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The coconut’s “apple”

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Malayans traditionally use the coconut’s husk as fuel while fashioning its hard exterior into everything from ladles and containers to percussion instruments. The green leaves are used to wrap ketupat (rice cakes) while the central stem is dried, split and bunched up to make sapu lidi, the quintessential Malayan broom. The sight of an old auntie on her front porch, bending over as she scratches the sapu lidi across the cement elliptically, always makes my heart cry (partly because she needs a chiropractor).

The coconut’s outline is so recognisable, so intrinsic to our identity, that even on its own, it can trigger nostomania for the Malayan countryside.

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Travel advert from the Federated Malay States Railway

For another take on the coconut in the kampung, here is a lovely Malay pantun:

Hanyut bersepah tempurung,

Basahlah tangan tersiram santan;

Ingat-ingat ayam berkurung,

Helang bermain di tengah halaman.

Coconut shells are drifting in the water,

The hand is rinsed by coconut milk;

Keep in mind the chickens in the coop

When the eagle appears in the compound.

(Selection and translation thanks to Alfian Sa’at, a Singaporean playwright.)

The coconut is also an essential part of spiritual offerings and religious ceremonies in many cultures.

Given these multiple uses, the coconut has evolved through thousands of years of artificial selection by farmers responding to local demands. The most obvious geographical impact is inland cultivation—coconuts disperse naturally along coastlines and without human intervention would have remained there.

Modern industrial farming has supercharged the process, yet like with other foods, the main breeding considerations have been yield-related, including pest- and disease-resistance. A recent trend is a shift from tall to dwarf varieties, which are easier to harvest. (Tall coconut tree climbing—either agile humans or trained macaques—is a dying profession.)

There is no record hitherto of any farmer seriously selecting and breeding a coconut variety for the taste of its milk.

***

“We visited a coconut cream factory in Perak,” says Eng Su. “The owner usually takes kampung coconuts, he has no idea what species they are. A truck just comes and unloads random coconuts. He just grinds them, produces cream, which is frozen and exported to China.

We asked him, as a favour, if we could taste MAWA [Malaysian West African hybrid]. He said OK. He stopped the whole factory production line. He loaded up only MAWA and brrrrrrr…just for one cup. He ground hundreds of kilos of MAWA for literally one cup.”

I assume that “hundreds of kilos” is a typical Eng Su exaggeration. With his portly rice-and-whisky-fed belly, he is in some ways more Indian than Chinese.

Eng Su and his restaurant partner Lee Chan Wai picked MAWA after tasting several varieties that are grown commercially in Perak and northern Selangor. They say MAWA’s flesh yields about 30% less milk than some other breeds, but its higher fat content makes for a better taste, something farmers and industry insiders are already aware of. Varietal identified, they then worked out a supply chain to quickly get the coconuts from harvest in Malaysia to their kitchen in Ann Siang Hill, Singapore.

“Obviously there’s degradation at every step. Comes down tree—degrades. Dehusk—degrades. Take away kernel—degrades. But the more covered up you keep it the longer it lasts,” says Chan Wai, whose background in mechanical engineering and project management has helped with The Coconut Club’s logistics and process refinements.

(Kamal Samuel, the third partner whose day job is in investor relations, oversees finance and marketing.)

Regular fresh coconut milk sold in the morning in Singapore’s markets, Chan Wai says, will start to sour by the afternoon because the coconuts, which typically come from Johor or Indonesia, are old, i.e. possibly more than ten days since harvest.

The Coconut Club will receive coconuts harvested less than 48 hours prior. “Off the record, off the record,” Eng Su warns, after explaining the intricacies of this process. He repeats the phrase throughout the interview, which makes me wonder if he’s selling coconut milk or a nuclear bomb.

But one can hardly blame him. Awareness about food-related intellectual property has been rising in Singapore, particularly after the owners of the Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint, which makes Cantonese roast pork and duck, sold their recipes for S$2m in 2014.

The MAWA coconuts will reach The Coconut Club as broken pieces. Kitchen staff will feed them into a grinder and then press the shredded coconut into milk.

“You could argue that our santan [coconut milk] is better than what you can get in Malaysia,” suggests Eng Su. “The markets there, they use a a centrifugal, screw press to extract the milk. Generates a lot of heat [which degrades the flesh]. We use a Thai machine, a pneumatic press that has no heat.”

That bit of kitchen technology is the final piece in this coconut milk revolution, which aims to shift Singaporeans from packaged, preserved, multi-origin coconut milk to fresh, single-origin milk.

To be clear, Eng Su had not initially wanted to develop such a specialised coconut milk supply chain. He simply wanted to make good nasi lemak.

“We were kinda forced to because we were unable to find consistently good quality coconuts in Singapore,” Eng Su says. “We started at the markets, then got to know the drivers delivering the coconuts. After that we tried the markets in KL and when there were no more leads we called MARDI [the Malaysian Agricultural Research & Development Institute]. And the door opened from there.”

Like so much innovation, it was only after poking around that he realised his real value proposition was not the nasi lemak, but the coconut milk.

***

Clean.

If I had to use one word to describe this fresh MAWA coconut milk, it would be clean.

There is no oleaginous lingering at the back of my mouth, no globule clinging to the side of my tongue, no indication, really, that I have just consumed something containing fat.

Nutty flavours burst across my palette, and then are whisked through with the lightness, almost, of a fresh juice.

That clean sensation is perhaps the biggest difference between this and almost every other coconut milk I’ve had. I look forward to my next spoon without a tinge of guilt or fat-weariness.

That is not to say I can slurp it endlessly. After my second bowl of Eng Su’s cendol, I am starting to feel a bit jelak.

When done well, cendol is arguably Malaya’s finest dessert. Cendol refers to the dish’s signature ingredient: tadpole-shaped green jellies, which are made from rice flour and infused with pandan. These are submerged in a medley of shaved ice, gula melaka (palm sugar), evaporated milk and, of course, coconut milk. Each spoon is—or should be—an aromatic, earthy, sweet symphony.

Found around South-east Asia, cendol probably originated in Indonesia, where it was first sold without ice. Its name might have evolved from the Malay jendol, swollen. According to Wikipedia, the reason it became popular in Malacca and Penang may have been because those port cities had better access to ice from the refrigeration holds on ships.

Most cendol in Singapore today is made of tiny jellies which are so bland and forgettable one ends up swallowing them straight. The Coconut Club’s homemade jellies are thicker, with a natural green colour betraying their intense pandan flavour. They have a squishy texture, and when they pass over your tongue, they implore you to pause and mash them against the roof of your mouth, setting off little pandan-flavoured detonations.

Eng Su uses a good gula melaka—unbranded, like the best ones—which is yummy but may disappoint those looking for the excessive viscosity found in some Malacca establishments. He makes his own evaporated milk through 6-9 hours of slow evaporation of a specific cow’s milk brand (“Off the record”).

“The packing of the ice is key in cendol,” he adds. “In Penang they don’t pack it. It’s fluffy and melts very fast. We pack it well. Our cendol only gets soupy at the end.”

I did not get to see this because I ate faster than the ice melted. I should have stopped at one bowl, but I couldn’t—it is the best cendol I have ever eaten.

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The Coconut Club’s cendol

***

Now I wouldn’t say the same about Eng Su’s nasi lemak. It is very good—and probably one of the best I’ve had in Singapore—but there are too many good nasi lemaks around Malaysia, too many ingredient permutations, to make any such claim.

Nasi lemak, which in Malay literally means rich, creamy rice, was probably invented by coastal Malays with access to fresh coconuts. Perhaps its earliest formal mention is in the 1909 book “The circumstances of Malay life” by Richard Olof Winstedt, an English colonial administrator. Over time the Chinese learned to make it and today run many lucrative nasi lemak joints, including Singapore’s Punggol Nasi Lemak.

Nasi lemak has long been packed for mobility, little banana-leaf-wrapped pyramids grabbed on the way to work by journeymen, whether traditional farmers or modern office workers.

In other words, like Sri Lankan lamprais, Japanese sushi, or the modern sandwich, nasi lemak has a functional fungibility, as natural for a sit-down meal as for a fifteen-minute, under-the-palm-tree lunch break.

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Basic nasi lemak pyramids above; and a more elaborate nasi lemak below

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Nasi lemak is celebrated as Malaysia’s national dish, and achieved global recognition when Catherine Chin Coombes, a British-based Malaysian Chinese, won Masterchef UK 2014 with the dish as her main course. Earlier this year, TIME named nasi lemak as one of ten “Healthy International Breakfasts”. (Yes, really.)

Rice, coconut milk and pandan leaf are the only constants in the preparation of the dish. Every other complement one might find in a nasi lemak, from sliced cucumbers to fried paru (cow’s lung), is a function of local produce and culinary preference.

Given the multifarious evolution of nasi lemak, it should really be considered more of a food subcategory, like pizza, rather than a single dish. The coconut rice, like the pizza dough, functions both as staple and as a vehicle for the other ingredients.

And, just like a Neapolitan might sniff at any topping beyond tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, a nasi lemak purist will probably suffer convulsions when eating at Fong Seng, a Singaporean institution popular with NUS students and late-night revellers.

Fong Seng, like many other Singaporean nasi lemak operators, specialises less in nasi lemak than in the fine art of deep frying. You can have your coconut rice with fried sausages, fried fishballs, fried shrimp, fried nuggets, fried fish, fried luncheon meat (Spam), and pretty much any other fried thing you can imagine. TIME probably didn’t eat here.

What Eng Su wants to do, then, is yank Singaporeans out of this deep-fried rabbit hole into which we’ve plunged. In a country used to the nasi lemak equivalent of kitchen-sink pizzas, he wants to remind us what a quality margherita is like.

The Coconut Club’s standard nasi lemak offers a return to the dish’s Malaysian roots: coconut rice, ikan bilis (anchovies), sambal chilli, cucumber, fried egg and a whole fried chicken leg. Optional extras include beef rendang, otak (fish cake) and fried fish.

The Coconut Club is not the first restaurant to serve Malaysian-style nasi lemak in Singapore; so do Madam Kwan’s and Papa Rich, both Malaysian brands.

But, having spent years honing processes and identifying ideal ingredients—not least the MAWA coconut milk—Eng Su believes his product is superior.

***

When Eng Su began his rice R&D, it was with the objective of striking the right balance between chewiness and fluffiness. Singaporeans are generally used to fluffy coconut rice, while Malaysians enjoy a bit more chewiness—one thinks of the harder bite in those little pyramids. Eng Su aims for something in between.

Most nasi lemaks today are made of either basmati or Thai jasmine rice. After trying different ones, Eng Su chose a premium basmati. With his mum’s recipe as a starting point, he then titrated “every possible” water:coconut milk combination before deciding on one.

“We put coconut milk in at the beginning and at the end…most people in the Malay community know that’s how it’s supposed to be done,” says Eng Su, acknowledging that few vendors still do. “If you put too much in at the beginning, it turns to oil. And you can get a fresher coconut flavour if you put some in after it’s cooked.”

Eng Su did attempt making what’s known as nasi lemak kukus, or steamed nasi lemak—as opposed to boiled. It is generally recognised as the most authentic way of cooking the rice. The rice is soaked overnight, steamed the next day, left to cool, and then steamed again with coconut milk.

However nasi lemak kukus would have required more space, more labour, and less supply flexibility—the rice available depends on the previous night’s soak—so Eng Su focussed instead on refining his boiling technique. (There is, however, at least one place in Singapore selling nasi lemak kukus.)

Not every ingredient pursuit was successful. Eng Su says he would have preferred the shorter of the two commonly-grown pandan varieties—“it’s very flavourful without being bitter”—but was unable to obtain a regular supply. So he uses the longer one.

The end result is a rice whose flavour is inviting without being overpowering. Texturally it seems to edge towards lightness, with the attendant danger of being consumed very quickly. I find myself eating more carbs than I usually do. (Note: see “Food updates” below.)

Because of the MAWA coconut milk, I was expecting some special, new coconut flavour, yet I find a familiar one. It has a deep, rich, nutty fragrance, which wafts far away, but, unlike the cendol, does not grab you and scream its unique provenance.

“The coconut expresses itself most in the cendol,” says Eng Su. After the coconut milk is cooked, the differences are less pronounced.

Still, it is a very tasty rice that supports the showstopper: the fried chicken leg.

The Coconut Club uses fresh kampung chicken legs from Malaysia. By contrast, most nasi lemak stalls in Singapore use frozen chicken wings. “If you fry a frozen chicken, you’ll notice the inside of the bone is black,” he says. “Ours is red. Like chicken rice chicken.”

If one needs an indication of how Singaporean cost pressures can lead to a culinary race to the bottom, just consider how frozen wings—which would be criminal in Malaysia—have supplanted fresh legs on nasi lemak.

The Coconut Club’s chicken is marinaded in a paste that includes lemongrass, galangal and ginger—”It was important to me that the ginger asserts itself more than the other flavours,” says Eng Su—before being deep fried.

The end result is a chicken with a crispy skin and an unbelievably moist meat. I grab it with both hands and sink my teeth in, forgetting everything else on my plate. Juices run across my lips as I try not to lose any of the fried rempah (spice paste), cooked to perfection, adding texture and pungency as the morsels scurry around my mouth. Long after the meat is gone, I find myself plucking bits of rempah off the ends of the bones.

Eng Su claims to have spent one year reverse engineering a fried chicken he tried in KL. “The biggest problem was the clumping of the rempah,” he says. “Finally we managed to get it fine and wispy.”

Well, if all this highfalutin, single-origin, coconut jazz fails, he should just sell fried chicken.

The Coconut Club’s ikan bilis (anchovies), meanwhile, comes from Pangkor, and is unique in that each fish’s intestines have been removed, leading to a cleaner flavour, according to Eng Su.

Ikan bilis, whose crispiness adds texture and whose sharp, dried-fish saltiness complements the chilli’s spice, is an essential element in nasi lemak. Poor versions are either underfried, overfried, stale, or even sweet. The Coconut Club’s is good, though I couldn’t detect any extra gutless “cleanliness” in taste.

Its sambal chilli, beneath its deep, rounded notes, lacks a bit of oomph. The best nasi lemak sambals can stand on their own—the only rice accompaniment you need.

Here I didn’t find myself, as I sometimes do, revisiting the sambal for a lashing with every other bite. Unlike many others, this sambal does not contain MSG—added sometimes under the guise of “chicken powder”—yet that seems to have come at some umami cost.

The Coconut Club’s standard nasi lemak followed by a cendol is about all I can manage. That said, his beef rendang is good, in a dry, lean way, without the heavy gravy and chunks of fat that some might like. So is his otak (fish cake), which is the soft, cakey version usually found only in homes—as opposed to the thin, rubbery one sold everywhere.

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The Coconut Club’s nasi lemak (with otak in the background)

***

One big concern must be whether Eng Su can translate this quality from the shelter of his home to a kitchen in Singapore’s cut-throat restaurant industry. One always wonders how much better, say, a Madam Kwan’s tastes in Madam Kwan’s home.

If he can, then The Coconut Club’s standard nasi lemak is a no-brainer at S$10+. It might still be considered reasonable—for a proper restaurant nasi lemak—at S$15.

We Singaporeans have long been criticised for our extreme price sensitivity when it comes to local food (coupled with a willingness to splurge for mediocre foreign fare). My sense is that many today are willing to pay more for local cuisine if it genuinely offers something more.

Also, amid a growing environmental, health and agricultural consciousness, many should find The Coconut Club’s ingredient philosophies appealing.

In any case, it is not the first to experiment in this mid-market segment. One of my favourites is Char, which makes a quite unique kind of char siu—burnt, sweet, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth goodness—selling 300g of pork for S$15.

Another risk is quality variance. Like other specialised ingredients, single-origin coconut milk will not have the consistent flavour of its commoditised rivals. Too many supply factors, from fruit seasonality to the Malaysia-Singapore causeway traffic—trucks can wait up to eight hours to cross—affect the quality of the MAWA coconuts Eng Su receives.

Even at its worst, the MAWA will still trump packaged coconut milk, says Eng Su. Yet it is unclear if The Coconut Club’s repeat customers can tolerate these fluctuations, no matter how small.

So, will better coconut milk revolutionise Singaporean cuisine? Or will it just become an obsession of hipsters and Malayan romantics?

I guess we will soon collectively decide.

***

The Coconut Club, 6 Ann Siang Hill, Singapore 069787 (tel: 6635 2999), is slated to open within the next week. Please check its Instagram account, Facebook page or website for updates.


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Food updates

I tried Eng Su’s nasi lemak and cendol six months ago when I was last in Singapore.

* With respect to the rice, Eng Su has since opted for a “high quality Thai jasmine old crop, two years old.” This is partly because it strikes a better chewy:fluffy balance, i.e. it is slightly chewier and heavier; and partly because of its more local provenance (versus basmati). Although The Coconut Club will be serving this when it opens, I get the sense that Eng Su is going to keep experimenting in his quest for the perfect rice.

** Eng Su claims to have improved his sambal “by adding deep fried and ground ikan bilis in the beginning when frying and whole deep fried ikan bilis at the end together with raw sliced Bombay onions.”

I cannot comment on the above since I am not in Singapore currently, but look forward to trying these new versions.

Additions and asides

* There are too many other uses of the coconut, in Malaya and elsewhere, to list, but a few more novel ones are Hawaiian coconut buttons; rugs made from coir, the fiber of the husk; and an emergency wartime scratchpad for a young John F. Kennedy.

“While Kennedy was serving in World War II as commander of the PT109, his boat was hit by a Japanese destroyer and his crew was stranded in the Solomon Islands. Lieutenant John F. Kennedy carved this Coconut shell with a message and gave it to two natives to deliver to the PT base at Rendova so he and his crew would be rescued.  He later had the coconut shell encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight on his desk in the Oval Office.

Message carved on coconut shell reads “NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY”. ”

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Kennedy’s coconut, on display in his presidential library

* For some Malays, the fact that Chinese entrepreneurs were best able commercialise a Malay dish is proof of their shortage of business acumen and inability to protect their own cultural IP.

“Malays tak boleh simpan rahsia, cannot keep secrets,” Kamal, a shopkeeper at the Endau Felda estate, told me when I was doing research for my first book. Nasi lemak, then, can also symbolise ethnic competition and regret (in a racially-sensitive country).

* Here is the second pantun Alfian sent, which beautifully connotes traditional Malay hospitality and warmness:

Kait kelapa kukur kelapa,

Kupas ubi buat pengat;

Hendak kulupa tak terlupa,

Kerana budi sudah terpahat.

Pick the coconut and scrape its flesh,

Peel the tapioca and make dessert;

How impossible it is for me to forget ,

When your graciousness has left its chiseled mark.

Bulan puasa memetik kelapa,

Hendak menyambut Aidilfitri;

Budi kami tidak seberapa,

Kenangan diberi kekal abadi.

In the fasting month we pick coconuts,

For the Aidilfitri celebrations;

Our hospitality might have been modest,

What you have given will be forever remembered.

* An interesting discussion on the history of cendol in Singapore here.

* Starbucks has started selling a “coconut milk latte”—not without controversy.

* At a wedding I attended in Sri Lanka in 2015, the couples’ male relatives—some local, some newly emigrated to the West, some second-generation Americans—lined up on stage and took turns cracking a dehusked coconut with a traditional long knife.

“The fact that key male relatives needed to crack the coconut is most reflective of the reinforcement of lineage and hierarchy in the context of the wedding,” says Manjiv, the groom.

This brigade action also allowed the audience to easily position each relative on the local-emigrant spectrum—the less dextrous the coconut chopper, the less time he had probably spent in Sri Lanka. Put another way, the less handy a Sri Lankan man is with a real coconut, the more of a metaphorical coconut—brown on the outside, white on the inside—he is.

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From the wedding in Colombo. It’s probably much harder than it looks, using the blunt edge of this sickle and with only your other hand as support.

* For those who understand a bit of Malay—or are learning—I came across this lovely animated children’s feature on pokok seribu guna (tree of a thousand uses).

More photos and videos

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Sapu lidi. Modern versions come affixed to a pole

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Malayan currency featuring coconuts issued by the Japanese wartime government

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There are some 2,600 known species of palm trees globally. This is believed to be the last wild hurricane palm in the world—cultivated ones are common—pictured by my dear wife when she visited Round Island, Mauritius as part of her ongoing course in endangered species recovery.

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One of my favourite examples of coconut trunk sinuosity, Domain De La Bourdonnais, Mauritius

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I love this series of photos taken in Kelantan by my friend Nuno Santos as we were travelling around Malaysia in 2005, part of the research for my first book. I imagine this man as our Malayan lumberjack, separating the fuel from the nut. In the second shot you can see the effortless toss of the husk. Note that he is wearing a Thai rice sack as apron (Kelantan, Malaysia’s northeastern-most state, borders Thailand.)

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Two workers at a coconut plantation in Sabak Bernam, Selangor

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People in Singapore may notice something odd about the information on this coconut grinder, made locally by Ming Engineering. Eng Su bought it and had it repaired recently. The odd thing is that Ming still displays its telephone number without the extra “6” in front, which was added to all landlines in 2002. An employee told Eng Su that there has been such an overwhelming shift from fresh to packaged coconut milk in Singapore that the company still has so many spare parts, like this signboard, dating from that period.

Some cool drone footage from a coconut plantation in Sabak Bernam, Selangor. This video—and many of the food photos in this piece—courtesy of NoAverageJoe

About this piece

Though I don’t do much food writing—one day I might—I felt compelled to when I heard about this particular project. It is very close to my Malayan heart. So I approached Chan Wai and Eng Su for an interview. I appreciate them spending the time.

I wrote this for fun, a recreational break from my China/India book. A big thanks to Sumana Rajarethnam, who also knows the owners, for editing; and to Shuzhen Sim for coconut biology advice.

Image credits

Topten.ph, Wayne’s Word, Malaysia Design Archive, Bob Lee, JFK Library, Xing Fu’s blog, Penang Food For Thought, Eater Philadelphia, Season with Spice, Deviant Art, Chefling tales, Pinterest, Nuno Santos, NoAverageJoe

One response

  1. Pingback: The Coconut Club: Nasi Lemak, Cendol, Otah and other Coconut dishes! - ieatishootipost

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