Un­der the Palms

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY AUSTIN BUSH

Cook­ing with co­conuts in South­ern Thai­land

ON THE THAI IS­LAND OF KO YAO NOI, NO DISH IS COM­PLETE WITH­OUT A HIT OF CO­CONUT

ON A RARE COOL TROPICAL MORN­ING, I found my­self in the mid­dle of a co­conut grove, dwarfed by tow­er­ing, top-heavy trees. I was wait­ing for Phiphat Kep­sap, a co­conut gath­erer, half ex­pect­ing him to ar­rive in typ­i­cal farmer’s gear— over­alls, per­haps a floppy hat. In­stead, he made his en­trance on a mo­tor­cy­cle with a side­car oc­cu­pied by two mon­keys. With an ur­gency that be­trayed the ab­sur­dity of the si­t­u­a­tion, Phiphat hopped off his bike, led one of the mon­keys to the base of a tree, and grunted a com­mand. The mon­key shim­mied up to the top: Work had be­gun. Within se­conds, it was rain­ing co­conuts, the bowl­ing­ball-size orbs strik­ing the ground with ter­ri­fy­ing yet sat­is­fy­ing thuds.

For Phiphat and his mon­keys, this was just another day of work on Ko Yao Noi. Lo­cated just a half-hour by speed­boat from Phuket off the coast of South­ern Thai­land, the is­land couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from its flashy neighbor. It’s quiet and mostly agri­cul­tural, with a dense, hilly in­land of rub­ber plan­ta­tions, rice fields, and vil­lages ringed by an oc­ca­sional nar­row, rocky beach. The vast ma­jor­ity of its in­hab­i­tants—mostly farm­ers, fish­er­men, and rub­ber tap­pers—are, like Phiphat, Mus­lims.

As on Phuket, co­conut trees form a con­stant back­drop on Ko Yao Noi. But here, they’re more than just an ex­otic el­e­ment of the scenery. The nuts—their fra­grant, watery juice, their creamy milk, their thick white meat—are an es­sen­tial part of the lo­cal cui­sine, with one or more of these find­ing their way into nearly ev­ery meal on the is­land. It was this in­gre­di­ent and all the meals made with it that led me to this un­con­ven­tional har­vest.

“He picks only ma­ture co­conuts,” Phiphat told me of the mon­key. In­deed, the an­i­mal had been beel­in­ing for the brown-col­ored nuts, spinning them fu­ri­ously with his hands and feet to dis­lodge them. “I’ve had that one only a year or so,” he went on. “I bought it from some­body else who trained him. He cost me 50,000 baht”—about $1,600. With the oc­ca­sional tug on the mon­key’s leash, Phiphat directed him to­ward spe­cific nuts or to an ad­ja­cent tree. When all the ma­ture co­conuts had been plucked, Phiphat shouted, “Come down!” and the mon­key slid down the trunk of the tree im­me­di­ately and ef­fort­lessly.

THE MORN­ING’S HAUL OF CO­CONUTS LEFT THE SCENE with Dusit Ro­engsamot, who had hired the ser­vices of Phiphat and his mon­keys. The nuts were to be used in the fam­ily busi­ness, where he and his wife, Som­sri, pro­duce lo­cal-style sweets. “We make up to 10 dif­fer­ent types of sweets a day,” Som­sri told me the next day, pour­ing a molten, grass-col­ored con­fec­tion into a tray to cool and firm up. Co­conut fea­tures in nearly all of them, I would come to learn, whether in the form of freshly made co­conut cream or milk, or the grated flesh of the nuts. As the largest maker of sweets on the is­land, Som­sri re­lies on a

team of women—rel­a­tives and neigh­bors— to help her. Work­ing in her open-air kitchen, they’re as­signed var­i­ous tasks: mak­ing co­conut cream and milk, cook­ing sticky rice, fold­ing ba­nana-leaf pouches for steam­ing. Out­side, stand­ing in the sun over the heat of an open flame, Dusit smoked hand-rolled cig­a­rettes as he took on the job of carameliz­ing the co­conut. He com­bined shred­ded meat, juice from im­ma­ture co­conuts, and gen­er­ous scoops of sugar in a wok the size of a satel­lite dish. Af­ter 45 min­utes of Dusit’s con­stant stir­ring, the in­gre­di­ents had melded into a rich, fra­grant candy that’s a cru­cial com­po­nent in sev­eral of the cou­ple’s sweets. These ef­forts cul­mi­nated in lo­cal fa­vorites such as khanom hawng—a tri­an­gu­lar ba­nana leaf pack­age en­cas­ing steamed co­conut cream and rice flour dough with a ball of caramelized co­conut meat at its cen­ter—and khao niaw

haw kluay, for which a sweet co­conut and sticky-rice mix­ture and a slice of ba­nana are steamed un­til tacky, con­cen­trated, and rich.

SOME OF SOM­SRI AND DUSIT’S TREATS ARE SOLD FROM their home, but most are pur­chased by lo­cal tea shops, where they’re a break­fast sta­ple. Early the next morn­ing, I stopped into one such shop about a mile to the south of their home. Like oth­ers on the is­land, the tea shop is known sim­ply by the name of its pro­pri­etor, Supra­nee Pradit, who lo­cals call Ma Ya. It is es­sen­tially an ex­ten­sion of her front porch, with pic­nic ta­bles topped with brightly pat­terned table­cloths and a tidy sta­tion where tea, cof­fee, and a few light, sa­vory dishes are served. The early-morn­ing clien­tele is al­most ex­clu­sively men: fish­er­men and rub­ber tap­pers who pair their sweets with cig­a­rettes and rose-wa­ter-scented tea. “We come here ev­ery morn­ing,” a cus­tomer told me. “If there’s noth­ing fun to talk about, we talk about women!”

By the time the men had departed for their boats and plan­ta­tions, women and school­child­ren had trick­led in, or­der­ing dishes such as

khao yam, rice tossed with toasted co­conut, shrimp paste, and galan­gal, or khanom jeen naam yaa plaa, a rich, slightly spicy curry of fish and co­conut milk la­dled over thin rice noo­dles. The lat­ter is served with a buf­fet of top­pings on the side, in­clud­ing the astrin­gent leaves of the cashew tree, pick­led cu­cum­ber, lo­cal veg­eta­bles blanched in co­conut cream, pre­served white radish, tiny dried fish, hard-boiled eggs, and a heap of leafy herbs that range from pun­gent to sweet.

I ap­proached Ma Ya to ask her about khanom jeen naam yaa plaa, one of the most em­blem­atic south­ern Thai dishes, and she ush­ered me into her kitchen be­fore I could even fin­ish my re­quest. The cur­ry­like dress­ing, which takes on a sunny yel­low tinge from fresh turmeric, “should be a bit spicy,” she told me, but ex­plained that this heat is bal­anced by the sweet­ness of co­conut milk and the salin­ity of soy sauce.

We spoke in Ma Ya’s open-air kitchen, a messy jum­ble of cook­ing equip­ment, in­gre­di­ents, chick­ens, and cats shaded by a cou­ple of co­conut palms. She kicked off the prepa­ra­tion by mak­ing co­conut cream from scratch, grab­bing hand­fuls of freshly grated co­conut, briefly soak­ing them in wa­ter, then squeez­ing the stuff through a sieve to ex­tract its rich fatty liq­uid. Another press­ing with the same co­conut and she had a pot of co­conut milk. “There are a lot of things we don’t have to buy,” she said. Then she scat­tered the limp, ex­pired shreds of meat on the ground, be­cause on Ko Yao Noi, even the chick­ens eat co­conut.

“Co­conut trees on Ko Yao Noi are more than just an ex­otic el­e­ment of the scenery.”

A mon­key be­long­ing to a lo­cal gath­erer has been trained to pick only ma­ture co­conuts.

Clock­wise from above: Husk­ing co­conuts; grat­ing fresh meat; a bowl of freshly grated co­conut; at work mak­ing co­conut milk.

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