The principal way coconut is used in Malaysian cooking is through the coconut milk, called santan.
Santan is not the clearish water in a mature coconut that I drank as a kid. That water is also considered unpalatable and is usually discarded. Rather, santan is the liquid obtained from pressing shredded coconut meat. It is a thick, creamy white, extremely high in fat. It fills the role of butter or cream or soup stock in cooking. It is an essential ingredient for Malay cooking. An old lady told my wife once she doesn’t know how to cook if she doesn’t have two coconuts in the kitchen. It is the base for most sauces, a part of most desserts, and is used to make the rice in the breakfast nasi lemak, which is the eggs, hash browns and turkey bacon of the Malay diet.
Santan can be bought in tins, in powdered form and fresh frozen in packets. Those with a little more time to spend can buy shredded coconut from the market and press it themselves. Back in the states, we had to settle for tins. It was miserable for my wife. Being from Bagan Datoh, the coconut basket of West Malaysia, not having fresh santan made her unsatisfied with everything she cooked. At the time, I didn’t know the difference. After coming to Sarawak, we would buy shredded coconut. But before long, it stopped satisfying. There was only one thing to be done: get our own coconut shredder. And we did.Now, all her cooking is preceded by santan preparation. And here is how it works: we buy coconuts in bunches of four, with the fibers (sabut) still attached to the top, covering the three holes. This keeps the coconut fresh. That is one reason you can’t get good coconuts in the states – the coconuts are bald. These days they are often scored around their middle to make them easier to open, but it probably reduces their shelflife further.
When she wants to cook, I peel off the fiber covering. That goes in the compost pile. Coconut fiber makes awesome compost. Then I bust open the coconut using a handy kitchen-sized parang. Often, I capture the water and drink that. What can I say: I’m a product of my environment. Then, the coconut goes to the mighty coconut scrapping machine.
This monster is built for a single purpose: making short work of coconuts. The business end is a fist-size ball of metal with dozens of sharp spikes. The coconut shell is pressed onto the whirling ball and in about 15 seconds, you have shredded coconut. This is just the homeowner model of course. For commercial santan production, a top-feeding model is used. That one is much safer in theory, since the meat is just dropped into a chute. This one definitely has safety issues. There is no way it would be approved for sale in the states. Since you have to press and hold the shell while the blade spins, your fingers are only a half-inch away from being shredded too. Since we got it, it has already nicked our maid and my mother-in-law. Consequently, I do all the shredding now. I’m expendable.
After the coconut is shredded, the meat is squeezed by hand through a seive, adding a bit of water to move it along.
I’d say one average coconut yields two tins of santan like the kind we used to buy. Is it all worth it? Oh my yes. It is cheaper this way; the machine will have payed for itself in a year. But I wouldn’t do it just for that. The difference in flavor and aroma is amazing, especially for kueh and nasi lemak. I don’t care to eat nasi lemak outside anymore. It doesn’t have the lemak!