Coconuts grow in abundance all over Goa, making them a very popular ingredient in Goan cuisine. The sap of the plant is used to prepare coconut vinegar, or vinagre, as well as feni, a type of alcohol—both of which are obtained through fermentation and used extensively in Goan cuisine.
When it comes to using the coconut flesh in cooking, younger coconuts are tender and sweet and typically consumed raw (you’ll see carts loaded with coconuts, which vendors will slice the tops off of with their sharp knives and then stick a straw into the fruit before they hand it over to you to drink the sweet water inside the shell). As coconuts age, the flesh starts to get more fibrous and firm and the water content starts to reduce; it is these older coconuts that are used in cooking both sweet and savory preparations. The flesh is grated and used fresh or dried in the sun to increase its shelf life.
Goans use the grated flesh to prepare rich and thick stews such as the xacuti or sweeten it a little and use it as a filling for crepes. Coconut milk is prepared by adding hot water to the grated flesh and then extracting it, but this strained liquid was usually used in sweet preparations, such as baath cake. Coconut is the most important part of Goan cuisine. The oil is used to cook with as well as a seasoning agent because of its rich nutty perfume. Although coconut oil is saturated fat, most people in Goa consume a large amount of fish that contain essential fatty acids, which counteracts the potentially negative health of effects of a diet rich in coconut fat.
Over the years, coconut milk has become a popular ingredient in Western kitchens, and it has also found a spot in many homes as a substitute for dairy products for people with dietary issues. The most popular form is the canned variety—many containing added emulsifiers and thickeners—but preparing coconut milk from coconut isn’t that hard.
You can make your own by adding hot water to either freshly grated or dried coconut and then pulsing it in a blender for a couple of seconds. This liquid can then be strained through a layer of cheesecloth to extract the milk. I like to keep a couple of bags of frozen fresh grated coconut in my freezer, using them as needed. Just like dairy-based milk, coconut milk can also “curdle” on high heat, especially in the presence of acids such as lemon juice or vinegar, so typically gentler cooking methods work well—cooking at lower temperatures for longer periods or adding the acid once the dish is fully cooked, as is done with some coconut-milk-based Thai curries where the stew is gently simmered over low heat.
Since canned coconut milk came much later and there isn’t much of a need for it in India, most coconut stews and curries start out using grated flesh. Xacuti (pronounced “shak-ooti”) is one such stew that Goans prepare often. Start by using either grated fresh coconut or using some that previously dried in the sun. Then toast the coconut with spices and grind it to form a smooth paste that was used to create a perfumed, creamy sauce in which the meat was cooked to tenderness.