Freshly squeezed coconut milk adds richness to this traditional Hawaiian pudding — well worth the considerable extra effort
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 08, 2011
When most of us make haupia — Hawaiian coconut pudding — we reach for a powdered mix and a can.
But when Sai Wun Martha "Auntie Sai" Roig makes haupia, she reaches for a big Samoan coconut from her nephew John Lee's yard. And the result is a deeper coconut flavor and creamy texture.
One weekend, my girlfriend Susan Iwata brought Auntie Sai to my house to show me how to make haupia from scratch.
Growing up in a Chinese family of seven sisters and five boys in Kalihi Kai, Auntie Sai, now 86, learned from her Hawaiian neighbors how to make fresh haupia. The family had inherited a property on McNeil Street (where the Lion Coffee warehouse is now) and her dad ran a cafeteria-style restaurant there, so she comes by her cooking genes honestly.
Now, her sprawling family looks forward to her haupia and her squid luau for their annual New Year's Eve luau.
Let's face it: Coconuts make people crazy. So few of us know anymore how to select, crack and harvest the meat.
But let's take it one coconut at a time. We'll even teach you some shortcuts.
First: You cannot use sweetened "angel flake" coconut to make coconut milk. You need mature coconut meat from which to extract the milk. And by milk, we don't mean coconut juice or coconut water, the thin liquid that sloshes around inside the nut. We mean the creamy, rich milk that is squeezed out of the fresh meat and helped along by means of exposure to hot water.
Back to the fresh, whole nut, then.
» How to select a coconut: "The older the coconut, the better," said Auntie Sai. The coconut should feel heavy in your hand and you should be able to hear a little liquid splashing inside when you shake it, she said.
Constant tree-trimming in today's litigious society has made free coconuts from public spaces hard to find. "You seldom find fallen ones because they trim the trees before it's mature," Auntie said sadly.
So the first step is to find a friendly neighbor or family member with a coconut tree in the yard. For Auntie Sai's recipe, you need three good coconuts, each of which will yield about a cup of coconut milk.
Or try these shortcuts, Auntie Sai suggested: Buy Hawaiian Sun brand frozen grated coconut. Or buy fresh-grated coconut from the vendors who sell it in Chinatown.
» How to husk a coconut: A few years ago, a friend taught me to husk a coconut. He uses a pickax — the one with the pointy blade on one side and the wider plowing-type blade on the other.
First, he jams the wide side into the ground. Then he slams the coconut onto the pointy blade, ripping along the husk's length to rip off the thick fiber.
An alternative: Hold the coconut in both hands and slam it against a hard surface, such as a paved sidewalk. Repeat around the width of the coconut. Eventually, the husk will break along its ridges and you can pull off the husk.
» How to crack a coconut: Most Polynesians use the back of machete (NOT the cutting blade), skillfully tapping along the coconut's "equator." After a few whacks, the coconut will crack perfectly in half. (Work over a bowl to save the juice, if desired.)
You can also use the back of a heavy Chinese cleaver. If you've got a coconut grater, no need to pry coconut out of the shell; just crack it into quarters.
If I lost you at the word "machete," try Paula Deen's scaredy-cat technique: Bake the coconut in a preheated 400-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until it cracks. Wrap the baked coconut in a towel, and tap it with a hammer all over. This loosens the meat from the shell.
» Grating a coconut: Coconut graters — found in some Chinatown outlets or shops that specialize in Thai, Guamanian, Polynesian or Filipino foods — vary in size and style but all are roughly similar: Serrated metal teeth are anchored to a piece of wood or a small bench. You sit on the wooden part to anchor the grater with your body weight; the grater emerges rather indelicately between your spread knees.
Then you run the cracked coconut pieces over the teeth so the meat breaks up and comes off the shell. With a grater, you get shredded coconut in minutes.
Auntie Sai's trick with the grater is to wrap the outside of the coconut in a thin towel, to aid your grip and keep from cutting yourself on broken shell. And she warns sternly against grating so hard that you dig into the brown shell lining on the meat. Push through just to the edge of the white. Little flecks of brown shell here and there are fine, but avoid large pieces.
If you don't have a grater, use a knife with a thin, flexible, sharp blade to pry out the meat. Employ a sharp, swivel-headed vegetable grater to remove the brown stuff and grate the coconut. This is more tedious than using a coconut grater, but it works.
» Milking a coconut: Men with strong hands can squeeze out a goodly amount of the milk from fresh-grated coconut without the aid of water extraction. The rest of us need help.
Bring 5 cups water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Place three coconuts' worth of grated meat in the water. After a couple of minutes, when the water is creamy white, pour the mixture through a strainer or small-holed colander into a large bowl.
Now milk the meat further: Place a doubled 12-by-12 square of cheesecloth or loose-weave muslin in one hand. With the other hand, scoop up a small handful of coconut meat, twist it up into the cloth as tightly as you can and squeeze the coconut for all you're worth.
"This is the laborious part," Auntie Sai said. "In the old days, we used what they call poi strainer muslin, but hard to find now. The more you squeeze, the more it's gonna be richer."
From here, proceed with Auntie Sai's haupia recipe (above) or use the coconut milk in savory dishes, such as Thai or Indian curry or Samoan palusami (corned beef or fish and taro leaf with coconut milk, baked in taro leaf bundles).