Coconut in the spotlight

Today, would you believe, is World Coconut Day – one of those facts which is usually greeted by a response of “Say what?”. It does feel like a bit of an arbitrary thing to have its own special day, doesn’t it?

But when you start thinking about it, the coconut is one pretty impressive drupe. Yes, that is, botanically speaking, what a coconut is – an “indehiscent fruit in which an outer fleshy part (exocarp, or skin; and mesocarp, or flesh) surrounds a shell (the pit, stone, or pyrene) of hardened endocarp with a seed (kernel) inside”, also known as a drupe. The coconut we usually buy in the shops is not how it hangs on the tree – its just the hardened endocarp shell, with the greenish brown exocarp and fibrous mesocarp already removed.

The coconut – more than just a pretty face!
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The coconut, it turns out, is an amazingly useful drupe. So much so that the coconut tree has been called the ‘Tree of Life’:

  • the water inside the coconut is a refreshing drink, and is used extensively in cooking and a range of medicinal purposes
  • its white flesh can be eaten raw, or desiccated (dried) and grated, and used for culinary or medicinal purposes
  • it’s kernel can be processed to produce coconut oil
  • the coconut oil, water and flesh are also used extensively in soaps and cosmetics
  • the water inside the coconut is sterile until opened, and mixes easily with blood – as such it can be used as an emergency intravenous hydration fluid
  • its shell can be made into charcoal, or made into household items like bowls and other handicrafts
  • coconut shells are also used as the bodies of musical instruments, or banged together for percussion
  • it’s fibrous husk can be used to produce coir, which is used in rope, door mats, brushes, mattress stuffing etc
  • the nectar derived from incising the flower clusters of the coconut can be drunk as is, fermented to make palm wine, or boiled to create a sweet, syrupy candy
  • the husks and leaves of the coconut tree is used to make furnishings and decorations
  • fresh coconut husks can be used as a body sponge
  • the leaves are also used in cooking, to wrap rice, for example
  • coconut fronds are tied together to make brooms
  • the trunk of the coconut tree can be used in construction, or hollowed to make drums and small canoes
  • coconut roots are used in dyes and processed for medicinal purposes.

And so the list goes on…

Given the amazing value that can be gained from the coconut and the coconut tree, it is hardly surprising that it is treated with such immense respect in its main growing regions (including Indonesia, Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam). It is commonly used in cultural and religious activities, and plays an essential role in Hindu weddings and other rituals.

Still wondering why the coconut got its own World Day? Neither am I!

Invention of the microwave oven – time-saver or taste-killer?

Today we celebrate a device that, despite being a really innovative invention, has in the eyes of many become synonymous with anti-innovation in the kitchen.

On this day, way back in 1894, Dr Percy Spencer (9 Jul 1894 – 7 Sep 1970) was born – the self-taught engineer who, many years later, invented the microwave oven. Before the Second World War, Sir John Randall and Dr HA Boot invented the magnetron tube, with which they were able to produce radar microwaves. A few years later, after the war, Percy Spencer was doing research work on the magnetron tube. While working on an active radar set he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted – the radar melted the chocolate bar with microwaves. From this discovery, he started investigating the possibility of using microwaves to cook food. Spencer fed microwave power from a magnetron into a sealed metal box. When he placed food into the container and radiated it with microwave energy, the temperature of the food rose rapidly. This resulted in the development of the microwave oven – a device that cooks food with radiation used to heat polarised molecules in the food.

The microwave oven – only good for popping corn?
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The first microwave ovens were large, heavy units, used in restaurants and commercial kitchens. The first countertop microwave was introduced in the mid sixties, soon becoming a ubiquitous device in kitchens around the world.

While the microwave oven is great for reheating food, cooking vegetables, and heating liquids like water or milk, it has not yet achieved any real culinary status. For the most part, it is used to heat ready-made, pre-packaged microwave meals. Microwave cooking can be quite healthy – it’s impact on nutrient content in food is said to be no worse than conventional heating, and thanks to the shorter preparation time, more micronutrients may be retained when microwaving vegetables, for example. But it is limited in application, and for the most part not capable of achieving the culinary effects and flavours created with conventional baking, frying, browning and slow-cooking. (Somehow I don’t expect to see Jamie Oliver’s “The Italian Microwave” or Nigella Lawson’s “The Microwave Goddess” hitting the cookery shelves anytime soon!)

So while the microwave oven definitely has it’s place in the modern kitchen, it may also probably stand trial as the primary culprit in thousands of dull, colourless and uninteresting meals prepared in the past 40 years.

Where do you stand – is the microwave oven an invention to celebrate, or to lament? Do you find it a must-have time-saver in the kitchen, or do you still have difficulty stomaching most microwave meals?