The many faces of cocos nucifera. . .

February 29th, 2012

about ajoy

i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

vegetable ishtew

What in the world is cocos nucifera?!!!

Simply put, this is the nut with a ‘smiling face’ as the Portuguese call it.

I call it coconut.

Indians call it nariyal, narall, thengai or caai . . . depending on who you talk to.

It is the most versatile vegetable, fruit, nut . . . and much more!

My association with this ‘smiling faced’ nut started in Bangalore as a ‘punishment’ when my chef asked me to shell shrimps, only 15 kgs of the things.

Now, shrimps in India are miniature prawns that do not grow beyond 2 inches in length.

To shell them is a highly skilled job and I was not trained to do this.

I was trained to become a ‘chef ’, not a bl..dy masalchi, or a helper, or so I thought. However, I could not escape, I HAD to do it.

So, this is what I did . . . for every four prawns that I shelled, two unshelled prawns went into the bin!!

Who would notice if I discarded just a few?

After nearly 3 hours of  ‘shelling’ I handed over my labour to Chef Alex who promptly thanked me for doing the work and I was ready to go home.

Just as I was about to leave the time office at the Taj Residency, I heard a familiar, but stern, voice call me on from behind, it was Chef Alex himself.

What followed was not exactly pleasant but it was one of the most important lessons of my cooking life which basically boiled down to: can’t shell?, then, will break coconuts!!!

If you can’t do the hard yards now, son, you will never get to the top!!

For the next four weeks I was asked to break coconuts, by hand.

I had to grate them and squeeze the extract out of nearly 20 of them so that they could be turned into a Kerala style ishtew to accompany appams, or pancakes.

Besides this, I was also asked to break from anywhere between 10 and 25 coconuts for the banquet kitchen if there was a function on!
So, whilst breaking the smiling faces was far from easy work, working with Unnikrishnan, Jose and KK Shiva, three of the best chefs from the south, taught me not just how to cook with the coconut but also how to appreciate this wonderful nut.

Indians, especially from the coastal regions, use every part of this plant. It is used in every aspect of their life, they drink the water of the young coconut, eat the ‘meat’ of it, use the extract of it for making sauces, ferment it and make ‘vinegar’, use the husk for handicrafts, cut and clean the shell to make kitchen utensils, and much, much more!!

Then there are the medicinal benefits, too many to name in this blog so that can wait for another time, or another blog!!

We Indians even worship this fruit!  There is a festival named after it called Narayali Poornima which is celebrated in the state of Maharashtra to mark the end of the monsoon period!!


Now it’s time to do a recipe using the ‘smiling’ nut!! Please click coconut vegetable ishtew recipe for a one-page recipe of this dish.

ingredients clockwise starting in the 2 o’clock position: coconut oil, chopped red onions, sliced green chillies, broccoli and cauliflower florettes, diced tomatoes, kari leaves, ginger juliennes. outer ring: diced beans, cassia bark, green cardamom, cloves, mace blade, black peppercorn, star anise, caramelised onions, coriander leaves, coconut cream (or whole coconut if you are really keen; otherwise use coconut cream), diced potatoes, diced carrots

If you want instructions on how to caramelise onions (or even slice them), check out my techniques page.

Blanching the vegetables

Step 1

prepare mixing bowl of iced water

Step 2

add salt to boiling water in a large pot

Step 3

add diced potato to boiling water

Step 4

cook the potatoes until they are al dente

Step 5

to check of the potatoes are al dente, remove one from the pot and cut it with a knife – it should slide through like ‘cutting’ butter

Step 6

when the potatoes are al dente, scoop from the pot and place in iced water to stop the potato cooking any more

Step 7

Repeat this process for beans, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower – cook each vegetable separately when blanching.

Cooking the spices, onion, fresh chilli, kari leaves and tomato

Step 1

In a large frying pan, heat pan and add coconut oil. When the oil smokes, add spices separately, folding between each addition. Start with the cassia (cinnamon sticks), then green cardamoms, cloves,black peppercorns and mace blades.

Step 2

Look for signs that the spices have cooked. Initially the cassia will be furled. When it has cooked, it will be open.

cassia (cinnamon stick) not ready since it hasn’t unfurled

unfurled, now it is perfectly cooked

cooked cardamon pods will swell, like this

cooked mace will only slightly unfurl, like this

Step 3

now the spices are cooked, add chopped onions and keep folding whilst the onions caramelise. n.b. the coconut oil will froth

Step 4

add salt and fold

Step 5

when your onions have caramelised like this, it’s time to add the thinly sliced (julienned) ginger

Step 6

add the ginger and fold

Step 7

add fresh green chillies and fold

Step 8

add half the kari leaves and fold. repeat this process with the remaining half

Step 9

when your mixture looks like this, it’s time to add caramelised onions

add caramelised onions and fold

Step 10

when your onions look like this, it’s time to remove a cup of them to be used as a garnish

setting aside some of the garnish

Step 11

add chopped tomatoes to the frying pan and fold until their skins have almost separated from the flesh (as above!)

Step 12

when the tomato skins have almost split, add coconut cream and fold

Step 13

turn down the heat so the coconut does’t boil as it will split if it boils. Small sporadic bubbles are fine!

Step 14

drain blanched vegetables and keep discarded water

Step 15

add vegetables to pot and fold

Step 16

keep folding until all the vegetables are covered by the creamy sauce

Step 17

cover pot for ten minutes, remove lid: your vegetables will (should!) look like this

Step 18

check that your sauce isn’t too runny – dip a spoon into the sauce and remove; the sauce shouldn’t run off the spoon but drip off. If the sauce runs off, keep reducing the sauce

if the sauce doesn’t drip off your spoon, add a little water (use the water from the blanched vegetables)

only add a little water (kept aside from the strained vegetables) at a time (if you need to)

Step 19

sample your dish – add salt to taste, if needed

Step 20 – Plate the dish

serve the meal – maybe on a banana leaf and red rice noodles a.k.a. Idiappam!

red rice noodles can be purchased from an Indian grocery store all ready to heat and serve!!

Step 21 Add garnishes and enjoy!

add chopped coriander

add caramelised onion/spice mixture you had set aside earlier

So folks, as promised, we are on a journey!! Not only am I ‘touring’ the vast land of India and showing you the great variety of its food, I’m also focusing on vegan dishes! Don’t, my dear meat-eating friends, be ‘put off’ by this. Make some of these as a side dish, if you want, with some kebabs (remember?) or lamb cutlets that take minutes to cook. And as for my vegan friends, well yes, I know, this is more than enough as a good meal in itself. Gotta try and please all the people all the time, don’t we?!

Next week we will travel to the state of Karnataka on the west coast for more coconut cooking, more techniques and maybe even a starter. . .

Until then, happy VEG(AN)TARIAN cooking and remember Indian food is NO DAMN CURRY IN…..!!! When I show this dish to people they say, “Is it Thai, Italian, Macrobiotic . . . etc. etc. etc.” and never bl–dy Indian. And on that merry note.

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!!

[polldaddy poll=5993472]


  1. Ajoy Joshi

    Hello Sharda,
    Thanks for your comments.
    Will certainly make the change ASAP!!
    Happy cooking!!!

  2. Sharada

    Hi Ajoy! Loved reading your blog and browsing through your recipes. Your passion for food is so evident! So heartwarming to see a recipe from my hometown! Although I do have a bone to pick…it’s Kerala not Kereela! Please do make that change!

  3. Ajoy Joshi

    Hello Mustardseed,
    Good to hear that you are trying out the Vegetable Ishtew!
    As for the coconut oil, buy a brand that is edible as we Indians also use it to apply to the hair and body as an anti oxidant and to relieve stress but the oil may contain natural additives like ‘neem’ which is not exactly good for cooking!!
    We in Australia get some good coconut oil from PNG and NG. Try your local Indian grocer.
    Happy cooking!!

  4. mustardseed

    Oh I love this dish. I am going to get all the ingredients needed to try this myself. I have to look for coconut oil, have never used that before for cooking.

Comments are closed.


Garam Masalas