A while ago, I wrote about using desiccated coconut instead of fresh in an Indonesian urap. I use dried coconut all the time in my South Indian cooking and I don’t feel terribly guilty as it’s everyday food and it tastes pretty darn good that way. And yet…I do have a sneaky sense of guilt when I put store-bought dry coconut into a dish where it doesn’t get toasted or cooked down into a sauce. How much brighter would this taste with fresh coconut? It was time for a coconut experiment: cook a dish I usually make with desiccated and see how much better it is with fresh. I decided on a staple of my Thai cooking, yam som-o, or pomelo spicy salad.

Both coconuts and pomelos are now regularly found in supermarkets. Only a few years ago, pomelo was impossible to find outside Southeast Asian markets (at least in the cities I’ve lived in) and even coconuts were irregular items. Now, both are commonplace, though many people have never cooked with a pomelo. It’s easy: the whole point is that the flesh is firmer than that of a grapefruit and the membranes peel off more cleanly. It’s thus less appealing as an eating fruit, but keeps its shape well in a salad.

Prepping the coconut is a bit more involved, but not difficult so long as you have either an axe or a hammer to break it open. (While very interested in hunting coconut, the cat proved sadly unhelpful in the actual grating process.) First, using a corkscrew, make two holes through the eyes on top of the coconut. Pour out the water into a bowl. Have a delicious glass of coconut water while you do the next part! Now put the coconut into a low oven for 15 minutes to help separate the flesh from the shell. Once out of the oven, put it on the floor on some newspaper and either whack it open with an axe or tap more carefully with a hammer till it breaks. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I had somebody else do this part for me. Now prise away the hard shell – it should come away quite easily. Peel off the brown skin with a vegetable peeler. Now you have just the white meat. Chop into pieces and grate in the food processor until fine and fluffy, a minute at most. You can freeze any leftovers, and one coconut yields several cups, so it’s actually not as crazy as it might seem at first.

The recipe itself is a variant of yam som-o, a Thai spicy salad I’ve read about in several very different versions. Some are rich with coconut milk and nam prik pow, which others are light, featuring grilled shrimp and lime dressing. This variant mixes chicken with pomelo and fresh coconut, and makes a hearty but very light flavoured dish. And, I must admit, the freshly grated coconut really does make all the difference.

Yam som-o, or pomelo and coconut spicy salad with chicken

  • 1 pomelo
  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/2 a small cucumber
  • 2 handfuls watercress
  • 4 big or 8 small shallots
  • 5-6 fresh red chilies
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tbsp dried shrimp
  • 2 handfuls fresh grated coconut
  • a handful cilantro

First, roast the chicken pieces. Once cooked and cooled, tear them apart into strips. Cut the carrot and cucumber into matchsticks. Cut the pomelo into segments. Chop the chilies into very small pieces. Put all of these in a large bowl. Slice the garlic and shallots thinly. Heat a little oil in a small frying pan and sauté each in turn until turning yellow. Add to the bowl. Grind the dried shrimp in a mini-prep until fluffy. Mix this, the coconut and the cilantro into the other ingredients.

To make the dressing, pound the sugar in a mortar and pestle until melted. Add fish sauce and about 1/4 cup warm water. Mix well and add lime juice. Taste for balance and add more of anything required.

To finish the dish, put the watercress into a large serving bowl and add the chicken and pomelo mixture. Pour over the dressing and mix well.

Serves 4