It may resemble an ice sculpture or some kind of high tech snowman, but it is in fact the heart of the coconut palm, or umbut in Malay, the growing part at the top of the coconut tree from which all the fronds develop and emerge. It is smooth, shiny and pure white. I’ve heard people use putih macam umbut the way we might say “as white as the driven snow”.
Umbut can be eaten, and that’s what it was doing at the market that day, being sold like a vegetable. You don’t have to buy the whole thing; they’ll carve a peice off for you. It is served cooked, often boiled in a mild watery dish. The taste isn’t that much different from bamboo shoots or nibong shoots, with a nice firm texture. The thing that makes umbut a bit of a delicacy, of course, is that you have to kill a whole coconut tree to get it.
The first time I had it was back in Bagan Datoh at my brother-in-law’s place, when a line clearance crew came down the road felling all the trees overhanging the power lines. Since they had to drop one of my brother’s trees, he asked them to salvage the umbut. They happily complied and made sure not to drop the trunk into the canal. They even took a minute to chainsaw the umbut out of the crown of the tree for us. At the market, the hawker brought the whole crown along, as you can see here, presumably to keep it fresh. Some short work with the parang and they’ll have the snowman.