Nata de coco, which translates in English to “coconut cream,” is a jelly-like food product popular in the Philippines and other south Asian countries. Despite its name, this food is not a cream, but rather is a clear solid. The cream reference is most likely owing to its key ingredient, coconut milk or coconut water. When fermented, the milk or water forms creamy solids that are strained, rinsed, and pressed into a mass. Cut into cubes, that mass becomes nata de coco, and is enjoyed as a dessert, as an additive to drinks, and as a garnish to many regional Asian dishes.
Filipino cooks have been making nata de coco for generations, and the process has changed little over the years. Coconut milk or water, sugar, and some kind of acidic agent are generally the only ingredients required. When exposed to acid and left in a cool, dark place, the coconut milk or water will ferment, leaving both a solid and a liquid alcohol. The liquid alcohol is discarded, and the solid is boiled to remove any residual acid, then drained, dried, and cut into cubes.
Most of the time, nata de coco is sweetened at the boiling phase, either by adding additional sugar or by boiling the mass in a sweetened cane syrup. Sweetened nata de coco is enjoyed as a dessert, either on its own or with fruits or sweet syrups. When left unsweetened it can also accompany more savory dishes, add substance to drinks, and garnish salads, among other things.
Commercial processing and manufacturing has made nata de coco widely available in grocery stores in the Philippines and throughout Asia. The jelly is still made by home cooks, however, and many believe that the homemade version has a different taste from that which is commercially produced. Much of this is likely attributed to the fermentation. As is true with many fermented foods, larger operations often speed the fermentation process by adding additional acids or alcohol agents. Although fermentation aids can cause the jelly masses to form much faster, it can also alter the final taste.
No matter how it is produced, nata de coco is widely praised for its high fiber content, as well as its near-zero cholesterol count. When sweetened, the jelly can contain a significant number of calories, however, particularly if packed in a fructose-based syrup. Still, compared to other desserts, it is considered by many to be among the most guilt-free. It is also an easy way to add texture, flavor, and fiber to a variety of dishes.