Harvesting Fresh, Nutritious Niu

From Waipa to Wailua, Natalie and Huy Nguyen harvest and maintain coconut trees. Professional-grade tree stands don’t have spikes, and this enables the Nguyens to harvest while keeping the trunks free of holes. To encourage healthy growth, the couple leaves flowers and baby coconuts, and only harvest coconuts that are ready to be consumed.

Natalie was born in Kekaha, and her family moved to the Kapa’a area after Hurricane Iwa. She has been harvesting coconuts for seven years. Huy moved to Kaua’i from New Orleans just three months before Hurricane Katrina. He has been harvesting coconuts for five years.

Whole coconuts, at various stages of maturity, can be bought at farmers markets and health food stores, and implements to open coconuts, or scoops to remove coconut meat, are available from the Nguyens at farmers markets.


In Hawaii, coconuts are called niu. The name is universally applied to the tree and its fruit. There are 24 Hawaiian words that refer to some part of the coconut plant. In ancient Hawaii, every part of the tree was used: from food containers, drums, brooms and toys to building houses and fishing tools. Pounded fibers were woven into strong cords to lash canoe parts together.

The term cocos is derived from 16th-century Portuguese and Spanish, meaning a “grinning face,” from the three small holes on the coconut shell. Coconuts are a large, one-seeded fruit of the coco palm. A fibrous husk encloses a hard, brown shell, and the endosperm within is edible.

When coconuts are shipped overseas, the husk is removed, leaving the shell exposed.

Coconuts are used in different stages of maturity.

Young coconuts contain “spoon meat,” a thin layer of meat that is jellylike and can be eaten with a spoon. Young coconuts contain coconut water, also called “Nature’s Gatorade,” which is low in calories and high in amino acids and potassium. When intravenous (IV) solution was scarce, doctors during World War II and the Vietnam War used coconut water as a substitute for IV solutions.

As coconuts get older, the meat absorbs the water. Mature coconuts contain very little water and a thick wall of hard coconut meat. Blending coconut meat with water and straining it makes coconut milk. Coconut cream is the thick liquid skimmed from the top of coconut milk. Coconut oil is pressed from dried coconut meat.

Season: It takes 11 to 12 months for the coconut to mature, and they can be harvested year-round on Kaua’i.

What to look for: Coconuts easily cross-pollinate and as a result, their color ranges from green to yellow and orange. Mature coconuts are used for meat and make a dull thud when you slap your hand against them. Young coconuts are full of water, and when slapped, the sound is kind of bouncy, with a slight echo. Unless you see a coconut fall, leave it on the ground. Fallen coconuts can be full of bugs or rotten inside.

Storage: Coconut water will keep for up to three days if stored in a glass container in the refrigerator. Sometimes it may turn light pink, and although the taste is slightly affected, it is still good to drink. Place fresh coconut meat in a resealable container and cover with water. Stored this way, it will keep for up to a week.

Tips: If you have more coconut meat than you can eat, blend it with water and freeze it in ice cube trays.

Preparation: Coconut water is consumed fresh, usually right from the coconut with a straw. Coconut milk is a main ingredient in haupia, a rich and creamy Hawaiian coconut pudding. Kulolo is baked coconut and taro pudding. The milk also is used in curries and frozen desserts. Hawaiians add coconut milk to chicken, fish or taro leaves near the end of the cooking process. Polynesians combine coconut milk with bananas, sweet potatoes and taro in baked or steamed puddings. Freshly grated coconut meat is used in candy, cake icings, turnovers and pies. Coconut oil can be used in frying and baking.

Health benefits: According to the Coconut Research Center based in Colorado Springs and founded by Bruce Fife, N.D., “Coconuts are highly nutritious and rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. It is classified as a ‘functional food’ because it provides many health benefits beyond its nutritional content. Pacific

Islanders consider coconut oil to be the cure for all illness. The coconut palm is so highly valued by them as both a source of food and medicine that it is called ‘The Tree of Life.'” For a lengthy list of coconut’s health benefits, visit CoconutResearchCenter.org.

Kaua’i Coconut can be found at: Farmers Market: Waipa, Tuesdays at 2 p.m.; Kapa’a Wednesdays at 3 p.m. Grocery: Papaya’s Natural Foods and Café; Hoku Foods Natural Market. For more information, call 822-2831.


Natalie shares her recipe for coconut fruit pudding. The all-natural dessert requires no cooking and is easy to make provided you have a good blender or food processor. You can substitute any fruit you prefer, and Natalie says fresh lilikoi juice is an excellent addition. Add your preferred sweetener as necessary. Makes two servings.

* spoon meat from 3 coconuts

* flesh from 1 mango

Combine coconut and mango in a blender and process until smooth and creamy. Spoon into parfait glasses or individual bowls. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.