Our friend, Diego, arrived in Pagan during our second week on island. He lived on Agrihan and Pagan as a child and came back as an adult as part of the medical corps pre-eruption (1981) and has visited post-eruption on several occasions. He had a unique perspective and many stories to share.
From the late 1800’s through the late 1970’s the main industry that provided off-island economies for Pacific islands was copra (dried coconut meat). Copra vessels would regularly visit the islands to pick up loads of coconut the people harvested and dried. These boats also provided a regular mode of transportation for people and goods for islanders.
As a child, Diego would help his family prepare the copra. His family would travel on foot to the self-developed copra fields with tools for opening the coconuts and meat. They would collect the meat in bags and bring it back to the camp for drying.
Not only did coconut trees provide for the copra industry to the islands, they also provided most materials necessary for living- fishing chum, houses, boats, twine, clothing, fuel, animal feed, water, and more. Today, on Guam (not yet on Pagan), the ubiquitous coconut tree is threatened by the coconut rhinoceros beetle, an invasive species that is estimated to wipe out native coconuts within the next 3-4 decades.
I hope that the conservation and management plans to quell the CRB are successful.
On top of all the other uses for coconut mentioned above, coconut meat is also used to make coconut milk and oil. Coconut oil is pretty popular these days. Pete described it (though skeptically) a few weeks ago that it’s ‘the next big thing’ in health food. I believe it now, after reading this article shared with me by a pregnant friend who made drinking coconut oil part of her prenatal nutrition regiment. Apparently it’s good for everything. While I don’t use it for acne or muscle tension, I do use coconut oil sometimes for cooking, oil pulling and as a body oil. I also plan to use coconut oil when I make soap. I had wanted to learn how to make the oil myself, from scratch for a while. I can’t believe how long I lived on a tropical island before learning how to do this! Diego explained the process one day over coffee and then walked us through it that afternoon and into the night. So here is how we were taught to make coconut oil (and coconut milk)…
1. Pick out a newly fallen (not sprouted or decaying) brown coconut.
2. Get the coconut out of the husk. (This is the hardest part, at least for me) Use a sharpened piece of rebar tied to a tree, a pickaxe, or anything with a steady, pointy metal or rock component. Bang the coconut on your sharp husking tool of choice, penetrating the outer shell and fibrous husk until you reach the inner coconut shell. Don’t break the inner shell yet. Push the pointy end of the tool to left or right, under and into the husk, and using the leverage against the shell, pry the husk away from the inner shell. The husk will come off little by little. Remove your tool, turn the coconut, and repeat until you can pull the husk off in chunks.
3. Break the coconut open. This can be done very simply and cleanly with a brown coconut once husked. Find the ‘eyes’ and ‘mouth’ of the coconut on the end (these are plugs the sprouts will grow out of). Above the “eyes” is a spine. Half way down the spine (in the middle of the coconut) is the best place to hit the coconut on rock for an easy break. With one swift hit to this point the coconut should break clean in half.
4. Grate the meat. There’s a great tool for this. A small metal grater attached to a board that you sit on. This method of grating is surprisingly fast and produces a LOT of meat per coconut. After grating just one (which takes me, an inexperienced grater, about 10 minutes) I exclaimed I would never buy coconut meat again when I realized how much meat comes from just one coconut (We used 12 coconuts and ended up with a half pint of of oil).
6. Squeeze the wet coconut meat, pushing the water into the meat and squeezing the milk and oil out into the collection bowl. Place the squeezed meat to the side of the bowl.
7. Repeat step six but set the squeezed meat in a separate bowl or bag. This meat won’t be used again but makes for good chicken feed. I imagine you could also make crackers from it…
You can squeeze with your hands or use a cloth or t-shirt for straining. Twist from the top of the cloth to increase pressure on the meat and get as much liquid out as possible.
8. Strain the liquid to remove any little bits of meat that fell out of your hands. Now you have coconut milk!! If you want to, stop here steam some fish, make curry, or prepare a tropical fruit-coconut milk smoothie.
10. Heat the milk. Stir to avoid boil-over during early stages of heating when the milk will froth. Slowly, the water will evaporate leaving the coconut oil and solid proteins. Stir regularly to prevent solids from sticking to the bottom and burning. After a few hours of cooking you will be able to see the oil floating in the milk. Eventually there will only be solids remaining in the oil. Cook mix until the solids turn medium-dark brown and the oil is a light, toasty brown.
11. Pour the oil off from curds and strain if necessary. You can dry the fried solids/curds and eat as a snack. I think they would be delicious as a yogurt or desert topping. For the oil, store in a clean and well-dried jar. Any water contamination (even a drop or too much moisture) will cause the oil to go bad in a few days. Your final product will be light brown and but translucent and have a slightly smokey flavor (especially if cooked over a fire). Now time for cooking (Or refer to the list of 333 ways to use coconut oil listed in the article above). Enjoy!
We’ve only done this once, so please feel free to comment with tips or advice for greater product yield or different methodology. Also, a huge thanks again to Diego for teaching us how to do this! Am planning on going to get myself a grater this week!