Brown coconuts with meat perfect for grating [SOURCE]
When you crack open a coconut, what comes out? Is it a thick and creamy white liquid that looks like milk? Or does the liquid have more of a clear consistency, much like water? 

If you picked the second choice, you're right! But if WATER is what pours from a freshly cut coconut, then where do we get coconut MILK from?
I guess I always took knowing the different parts of a coconut for granted. 
Growing up on the island of Molokai in Hawaii on acres and acres of land where groves of coconut trees served as a source of both food and material provision for my family and our livestock forced me to learn about the intricacies of this amazing plant.

But imagine my surprise when I first moved away from Hawaii and realized that the world does not revolve around coconuts! 

In fact, there are still many common misunderstandings regarding this remarkable plant, one of which is the difference between its water and its milk.

Here is my attempt at trying to clear up this simple misconception...

What is Coconut WATER and How is it Used?

When you crack open a young, green coconut, coconut water is the clear liquid found inside. For countless centuries, coconut water has been a popular drink in many tropical places, such as Brazil, Southeast Asia, India, the Pacific Islands, and the Caribbean. 

Fresh, young (i.e. green) coconuts are often sold by street vendors in piles, who cut them open with machetes in front of buying customers, harvesting the coconut water inside. 

Growing up on a piece of land surrounded by coconut trees, you can imagine that coconut water was a common source of hydration for me during my childhood. My dad would climb those trees with his bare feet and hands, twist the fruit off one by one, and drop it down to us below. 

First slicing off the top of the nut with his machete, we would drink down the refreshing water inside. After the coconut water was gone, Dad had a way of slicing off the top of the nut to form a spoon, then hacking the nut open with one swoop of the machete, we would pass around the half shells and scoop out the delicate meat inside with our 'coconut husk spoons.'

Coconut water is best harvested from young, green coconuts with thin, soft inner flesh.

What is Coconut MILK and How is it Used?

Coconut Milk [SOURCE]
While coconut water is relatively simple to harvest, coconut milk on the other hand takes more work. In order to get this creamy liquid, the firm, white meat of a mature (i.e. brown) coconut must first be grated and then squeezed, or milked, through a cheesecloth like material. The cream that drips from this process is what we call coconut milk. 

The bright white color, oily consistency and rich taste adds a very distinct texture and flavor profile to any dish that it is added to. 

Like it's watery counterpart, coconut milk is also a very popular food ingredient in many Southeast Asian cuisines, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

This is how they grate coconut in Thailand, pretty much how I grew up doing it in Hawaii...

As a child, my favorite of dad's dishes was a local Hawaiian dish called squid luau, made out of 3 simple ingredients; freshly caught octopus, freshly picked taro leaves and freshly squeezed coconut milk. As you can see, the key to all of these ingredients was their freshness. This meant that whenever this dish was prepared, we would have to pick or harvest each of these elements by hand, including the coconut milk. Another great coconut milk based dish from my childhood is my mom's traditional Hawaiian dessert called haupia.

Although opening and grating each coconut by hand, then squeezing the meat until all the milk dripped out of it, was a tiring process, the rich, creamy flavor that this ingredient added to every dish was always worth the extra work! I have tried both canned and frozen coconut milk for cooking, and have decided never to use those again. I would rather not cook any of my beloved childhood dishes unless the ingredients can be authentic and hand harvested.

Coconut milk is best harvested from mature, brown coconuts with thick, firm inner flesh.

For more on this and other miracle nuts, check these out:

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22/11/2013 7:15pm

I LOVE fresh coconut water! The first time I fell in love with it (like the very first time) was when i traveled through Hawaii. After that, you can guarantee that no matter what destination I've been to, if coconuts grow naturally this boy is going to get some! :-D

06/12/2013 7:03am

Ha! You sound like a coconut head, Ron. But yes, I don't blame you. The wonders of this miracle nut are unexplainable. .

22/11/2013 9:02pm

Ahhh... fresh coconut "meat". You forgot to mention that it's also a natural laxative.

06/12/2013 7:02am

So true, Kalei! Tastes great but definitely DO NOT overindulge! Haha

04/01/2014 11:07am

This post couldn't have had better timing! I just got back from Thailand (a few hours ago actually), and it was my first time somewhere tropical. I was so surprised to see a young boy pull out a butcher-type knife and hack open a coconut... and inside was water like you said. I'd never seen a green coconut before, and never really encountered the fruit except as a confection and an oil (which I use for everything). Thanks for teaching me something I was about to ask google-- you rock!


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    I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters deeply affects my view of travel. Read more...