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A coconut is the fruit of the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera. These plants are believed to be native to Southeast Asia, where they have been cultivated and used in food for centuries. Various coconut products can be found in the cuisine of many Asian nations, and they appear in other tropical diets as well, especially in the Caribbean. The distinctive flavor of the fruit makes it a very popular food, and a wide range of things are made with this plant, from palm wine to pie.
Technically, a coconut is a drupe, which means that it has a hard shell encased in a fibrous outer layer. When the shell is cracked open, it reveals a fleshy white meat and a liquid that is known as coconut water. Cracking open the shell is no mean feat; a number of techniques are used, ranging from baking coconuts to make them brittle to dropping them onto sharp rocks in an attempt to wedge open a crack in the shell.
The water found inside the shell is not the same thing as coconut milk, a popular creamy product which is actually made with the flesh of the fruit. Coconut water is crisp, cool, and refreshing, and it is often used in drinks in tropical regions. It is also high in vitamins and minerals, making it popular with the health food community. The milk is made by grating the flesh, soaking it in hot water, and squeezing it, extracting a very rich, dense white liquid that is very high in protein and fat.
Coconut milk is often used in curries and soups in tropical nations. It is also used to flavor drinks and desserts. The flesh of coconuts can be grated and toasted as a garnish, added whole to desserts, chunked in soups and stews, and it may be fresh, dry, or roasted, depending on the dish and regional preferences. Like coconut milk, the flesh has a high protein and fat content, and it has a very rich flavor.
Sap from coconuts is fermented to produce palm wine, while the leaves are used for thatching and the bark is sometimes used as a source of fiber. The fibrous outer shell is sometimes used as well; this fiber is known as coir. Coconut trees can also provide timber for construction projects and a source of fuel. There are numerous other uses for these plants and their fruit, explaining why they have become so popular in the tropical regions where they grow.