This versatile ingredient is delicious in traditional Asian dishes and modern recipes.
Credit: Victor Protasio

Sensing that one of my favorite Whole Foods cashiers was curious about my purchase of five brands of coconut water, I casually said, “I’m doing a little research.”

His eyes widened as he launched into telling me about his favorite brand (which I’d fortunately bought), how the packaging was ecological, how the liquid wasn’t pasteurized, and how it had electrolytes and antioxidants! When he paused for a breath, I responded, “I’m cooking with this stuff.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise as I explained that in certain parts of Asia, coconut water is both a drink and an ingredient. Noting a line of customers behind me, I went on my way.

What I didn’t get to explain to the cashier is that for decades, I’d been chasing the fleeting flavors of popular Asian foods such as Vietnamese pork simmered in coconut-caramel sauce, Indonesian fried chicken, and Thai coconut agar jelly.

Only recently had I managed to get satisfaction via the proliferation of coconut water in American supermarkets. Before coconut water came on the scene as healthy hydration, it was a low-key beverage, often sweetened and mostly sold at Asian markets. I longed for the lilt of fresh coconut juice, which adds a subtle sweetness and viscosity to help build umami in savory dishes. Years ago, despite knowing that coconut water comes from young coconuts with green or yellow exteriors, I nevertheless cracked hairy, brown, mature coconuts, thinking I could make milk with the thick, oily flesh then cook with the liquid inside. Wrong. The water was lackluster.

Replace your heavy cream with one of these delicious picks.

Today’s abundance of coconut water is quenching my curiosity. I use the slightly opaque liquid in traditional preparations as well as modern dishes. Sometimes I replace regular water with coconut water to make Vietnamese nuoc cham dipping sauce. If a coconut milk–based curry needs to be thinned out, I’ll pour in coconut water to further emphasize coconut goodness. The water’s natural sweetness often lets me use less sugar. When I’m sautéing vegetables, I splash in coconut water and cook it down, coating the veggies with a hint of caramelization.

Most recently, I decided to use coconut water instead of coconut milk to make a festive rice. The result was startlingly good. The coconut water didn’t weigh down the grains (or turn them gummy) like fattier coconut milk did. The water delicately flavored the rice during the cooking process; adding virgin coconut oil underscored the coconut flavor. The vibrant rice took me back to a dish that my mom made in Vietnam; I’d long thought those flavors were beyond my reach. Feeling brazen, I used the leftover coconut water in a Julia Child sautéed chicken recipe to serve with the rice. The two made for a great meal.

We cook for different reasons—to explore, create, or reclaim. In the process, we nourish ourselves on many levels. On this occasion, I did it with coconut water.

Try It: Chicken and Vegetables With Coconut Water

Credit: Victor Protasio

This easy chicken sauté is inspired by a recipe in Julia Child's The Way to Cook.