Travel

Behind the Scenes of a Hawaiian Coconut Paradise

And why what you see in the grocery store is only half the story
Photos: Todd Coleman
How to Open a Coconut: Punakea Palms Coconut Farm

“It's like a mini spaceship," Kai McPhee, the owner of Maui's Punakea Palms Coconut Farm, says while eyeing the coconut he's tossing up and down.

I don't really know what he means, but I agree anyway. The one thing a coconut has in common with a UFO is that no one knows anything about it. Sitting in cannon ball-like piles in the supermarket, fresh (which should be in quotation marks, but we'll get to that later) coconut has to be one of the least understood things in the world of groceries. No one knows what to do with it, much less how to open it.

That's where McPhee comes in. He's a self-styled coconut evangelist, and his pulpit is the grove his father planted on their property longer than 13 years ago. He's on a mission to educate the world (or at least those who visit his native Maui) on all things coconut.

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"What most people think of as a coconut is actually the inner kernel inside the husk of a mature coconut," Kai says, standing in the grove wearing an Aloha shirt and a wide-brimmed hat made from coconut fronds as he fiddles with a machete. "That's because cartoonists have drawn them that way, growing on the tree." (It's true: Everyone from Patrick on SpongeBob SquarePants to Scooby-Doo has been conked on the head from falling, impossibly round coconuts.) The coconut, as it turns out, is many things, depending on when you harvest it. "Every 28 days, a new coconut blossoms on the tree," he says. "It takes about 14 months for it to fully mature, and they change a lot during the process."

During a tour of the farm, you'll go through that process: tasting, feeling and exploring the coconut at each stage. First is the young green coconut, at six to seven months old—this is where the coconut water you know from health-elixir-craze fame comes from. Here, there's hardly any coconut meat, and what's there is jellylike—spoonable even. At eight months, there's less water and the coconut flesh becomes what's called "rubber meat"—it's almost translucent and can be shaved into thin, wiggly strips. (L.A.-based gluten-free pasta makers, take note.) In fact, McPhee makes a faux fried calamari from the meat that he swears by. Not having had it, I'll swear by it, too—it's still fried after all. 

As the coconut gets older, the water dries up while the flesh becomes thicker and fattier. Once I understand this, I start to think of a coconut as more of a cocoon. It eventually becomes entirely brown—looking like an oversize American football—and falls from the tree, ready to be wrenched open. Inside is the familiar brown sphere, ready to break open. McPhee recommends tools, but my favorite way to crack the case? Put it in a towel, gather the edges so you can swing it like a pendulum and whack it on the floor. Comes right open.

The fallen coconuts that get left on the ground sprout to create more trees, continuing the cycle. "It's the tree of life—the floor of our grove is one giant, green, gorgeous recycling bin," McPhee says, looking over his farm. "You can't recreate this kind of beauty." 

Todd Coleman is the creative director and editor at large for Tasting Table. Follow him on Instagram at @toddwcoleman. 

  • Kai McPhee, owner of Maui's Punakea Palms Coconut Farm, is on a mission to educate the world (or at least those who visit his native Maui) on all things coconut.

  • A new coconut blossoms every 28 days on the tree, before maturing for an additional 14 months.

  • What most people think of as a coconut is actually the inner kernel inside the husk of a mature coconut.

  • As the coconut gets older, the water on the inside dries up, while the flesh becomes thicker and meatier.

  • As it ages, the flesh has enough fat to make coconut milk. 

  • If you don't have the proper tools to crack a mature coconut open, you can put it in a towel, gather the edges so you can swing it like a pendulum and whack it on the floor.

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