2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

A Simple, Soothing Breakfast Unlike Any Other

A Simple, Soothing Breakfast Unlike Any Other

Coconut in Vientiane

I haven’t spoken for four days. Under the weight of my bulging backpack, my final moments of silence are spent walking gingerly down 309 brick steps from the golden pagoda above.

Up at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, 3,500 feet above sea level overlooking Chiang Mai, words and wealth are irrelevant; consumption is subsistence, not pleasure. Down at the market, capitalism is once again at my fingertips. Steps between worlds.

Wafts of spicy curry hover around me as I walk through the crowded market toward the food section, past vendors chopping vegetables and stacking fruit. Even after days of two humble (albeit surprisingly tasty) meals per day, a hearty dish is not calling to me. I beeline for my beloved breakfast: coconut.

I point, pay 30 THB (less than $1 USD), and hold my breath as a young Thai woman lifts a machete to hack open my meal in her bare hands. The cool, sweet liquid is vivid on my tongue, and I feel like I finally understand the word quench. I glide my finger between the stiff shell and soft meat, savoring the smooth texture as much as the taste. It was bliss, and the only meal my body handled gracefully while recalibrating that week.

I fell in love with coconut while living in Bangkok years earlier. My strict nightly ritual included visiting the local market for two bulging plastic bags of cloudy water and a straw for the next morning. Walking home, the swishing fluid in my palms always evoked a childhood memory: driving home from the pet store with my best friend, each of us holding our own colorful beta fish.

In Southeast Asia, I began to understand that the complex history of coconuts transcended my naïve predilection. At my first Thai cooking class, we met our teacher at a local market, where she led us to a vendor whose loud, powerful shredder ground the course skin and meat into a giant plastic bag. Hours later, I massaged a cheesecloth full of shavings into warm water for soon-to-be milk, a core element of the dishes we would cook. “It takes time,” she admitted, while laughing at my sore fingers, emphasizing how integral coconut is to regional cuisine.

Before I began traveling in the region, coconut was the oil that migrated between my kitchen and bathroom; the occasional can of milk serving as a base for mediocre curries. Once I was there, however, coconut was comfort; gentle, soothing, healthy, and safe when alternatives appeared questionable. The all-in-one, nutrient-rich fruit-nut-seed became a staple in my diet, a far cry from the nasty bottled coconut water that I deem sacrilege. Now, ask me what victory is. I’ll tell you the story of opening a coconut from the backyard of my childhood home, days after landing from Saigon.

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