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Sea coconuts grow on tall, evergreen palms that showcase a slender grey-brown trunk marked with leaf scars and large fan-like fronds. The palms produce moderately-sized round to ovoid fruits, averaging 15 to 25 centimeters in diameter, and the fruits grow in clusters just below the fronds. The palm fruits are semi-smooth, dense, and woody, displaying variegated hues of black and brown. When the fruits are harvested unripe, they are cut open to reveal a fibrous interior, encasing 1 to 4 flat seed endosperms. The endosperms are enveloped in a thin, pink to cream-colored protective layer, and beneath this layer, there is a firm, aqueous, and translucent-white, jelly-like flesh, known as a Sea coconut. The flesh has a consistency similar to lychees and is dense, containing a slender hollow center. Sea coconuts have a very mild flavor and are mostly appreciated for their juicy nature. The translucent flesh is chewy and releases a juice reminiscent of the taste of coconut water mixed with a sweet, subtle nuttiness.
Sea coconuts are available year-round, with a peak season spanning from February through July in Southeast Asia.
Sea coconuts, botanically classified as Borassus flabellifer, are the fleshy, aqueous endosperms of the palmyra or toddy palm fruit belonging to the Arecaceae family. The tropical palms are native to Southeast Asia, growing up to 30 meters in height, and are a species highly favored for their multi-purpose uses. When the palm fruits are young, they are harvested in clusters and cut open to reveal the jelly-like endosperms, sometimes known as seed sockets. Sea coconuts also have several regional names across Southeast Asia, including Ice Apple, Doub palm fruit, Munjal fruit, Tala, Tal, Nonku in India, Ton Taan in Thailand, and Buah Lontar and Siwalan fruit in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is important to note that palmyra palm fruits, or Borassus flabellifer, are labeled as Sea coconuts in Asian markets but are distinct from sea coconuts found in the Seychelle Islands. Sea coconuts in Seychelles are classified as Lodoicea maldivica and are a rare, separate species sometimes known as coco de mer. In Southeast Asia, fresh Sea coconuts from palmyra palms are a delicacy sold in markets still encased in the unripe husks. Once opened, the flesh is eaten raw, blended into drinks, or incorporated into chilled desserts as a cooling ingredient. Sea coconuts are also sold husked in select grocers or in canned form, preserved in a syrup, often known as honeyed Sea coconut.
Sea coconuts are a good source of calcium and phosphorus to protect the formation of bones and teeth and provide vitamin C to strengthen the immune system while reducing inflammation. The fruits also contain potassium to balance fluid levels within the body, antioxidants to guard the cells against damage caused by free radicals, and other nutrients, including zinc, iron, and B vitamins. In Eastern medicines, especially in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, Sea coconuts are considered a cooling food consumed to remove heat from the body. The fruits are typically eaten on hot days to prevent overheating, or they are incorporated into drinks to soothe sore throats and coughs and settle upset stomachs. The fruit’s flesh can also be mashed and applied topically to calm skin irritations.
Sea coconuts have a firm, jelly-like flesh and sweet, subtly nutty flavor well suited for fresh or cooked preparations. The fruits should be peeled before consumption, and once the translucent flesh is revealed, it can be eaten straight, out of hand, or sliced into desserts. Sea coconuts have a relatively mild flavor and are mainly used to add texture to chilled desserts. Sea coconuts are incorporated into cendol, a Southeast Asian dessert comprised of rice flour jelly, coconut milk, and syrup. Other toppings are also added to customize the chilled dessert, including Sea coconut, and the entire dish is consumed as an after-dinner refreshment or midday snack. Sea coconuts are also mixed into shaved ice or blended into drinks with coconut water and nut milk. In addition to using the flesh raw, Sea coconuts can be simmered to develop a softer texture. In China, Sea coconuts are popularly simmered in a rock sugar mixture and served as a soup known as tong sui. There are many variations of tong sui served throughout Cantonese cuisine, and Sea coconuts are typically served with dried jujubes and longans, snow fungus, and pandan leaves. The soup is thought to bring balance to the body and remove heat to cool the senses. Sea coconuts can also be sliced, simmered, and served with poached pears, lotus seed desserts such as leng chee kang and are occasionally stirred into curries in India. In Southeast Asia, Sea coconuts have a short shelf life and are often kept in the husk to help extend their perishable nature. They are also popularly sold packaged in the refrigerated section of grocery stores or preserved in syrup in small cans. In some countries, the endosperms are allowed to mature and sprout, developing a spongy, crisp, and fluffy consistency similar to a sprouted coconut. Beyond the fruits, the surrounding fibrous orange husk can be eaten when ripe, consumed out of hand, or grated into an aqueous mixture. This thick mixture is rolled into small pieces and fried as a snack dish known as taal-er bora or palmyra vadas in Bengali cuisine. The grated flesh is also wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in Malaysia, developing a sweet and earthy, caramelized pumpkin flavor. Sea coconuts pair well with other fruits such as lychees, longans, pineapple, and rambutans, spices including ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom, goji berries, ginseng, rose water, pandan leaves, and almonds. The fruits have a short shelf life and will only keep for 1 to 2 days when exposed to air. It is recommended to keep Sea Coconuts in their fibrous skin in the refrigerator and not to peel the fruits until they are going to be used for consumption. Once peeled, the fruits will ferment their sugar and become dry and rubbery.
Palmyra palms are regarded as katpaha tharu, or the celestial tree, in the state of Tamil Nadu in southeastern India. The palm is sacred for its ability to be used in its entirety in various applications, and ancient texts have linked the tree with the goddess Panaiveriyamman, a fertility spirit that protects palm trees in the Hindu religion. Throughout Tamil Nadu, palmyra palms are planted around temples and have been decreed as the official tree of the Indian state. Beyond the fruits, palmyra palm fronds were used as paper to write religious texts, and it is rumored that the creator of Sanskrit first wrote the alphabet on the palm leaves. In the Tamil poem Tala Vilasam, palmyra palms were described as the “tree of life,” and over 801 uses for the palm were mentioned in the poem, ranging from construction material, paper, food to wood.
Sea coconuts are collected from the palmyra palm, a tree native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The palms have been growing wild in tropical climates since ancient times and have been spread throughout Asia via trade and human cultivation. Today palmyra palms are primarily found in southern India, Southeast Asia, and China. Thailand is considered the largest producer of Sea coconuts in the present day, and the fleshy endosperms are kept in their protective husks and exported to neighboring countries, including Singapore. Sea coconuts are a delicacy found through select local markets in India, Southeast Asia, and China. When in wet markets, the endosperms are stored in their husks, while in specialty grocers, the endosperms are removed and sold in clamshells in the refrigerated section. Sea coconuts can also be preserved and canned in syrup.