Panic. My kabayo was missing. In just one week, I was to lead a workshop on coconut cookery and this tool was essential. Sure, we would cook with canned and frozen coconut milk. Yet I wanted the kabayo to be there as a silent teacher, to bring something real and solid and nearly lost to our microwave generation.
With its distinctly serrated blade and bulky wooden body, a kabayo feels made to last and should be hard to misplace. And after scouring stores in Oakland's Chinatown and making calls to Ranch 99 and Seafood City, I found that they were surprisingly hard to find brand new. "No one does it like that anymore," the shopkeepers told me, laughing. "Too old-fashioned. Who has time for that?"
Maybe it was senseless and stubborn, but I just couldn't let go of the idea of grating coconut by hand, of making that visceral connection to a food. It was time to ask for help.
"Help," I posted on Facebook. "Girl in need of a coconut kabayo this week. Who has one collecting dust in the basement?" Within an hour, answers came in. "Have a kabayo looking for a coconut," wrote Cindy, an SF-based friend and real food advocate. She even happened to be passing by the coastal farm where I work and sweetly dropped it off. It was a surpring mix of 21st century technology enabling a Luddite's coconut dreams to come true.
I took this as a good omen for the coconut dishes to come. A week later, in the kitchens of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, our class convened around food memories, geeky coconut trivia (did you know the coconut is technically a fruit, a nut, and a seed?!), and the slippery slope of using locally grown ingredients with ones like coconut that are hard to replace without losing the soul of the dish. And of course, we did actual cooking. Dubbed "the tree of life" in the Philippines, coconut is abundant in places like my father's province of Bicol, and I tapped on memories of his hometown to guide the menu.
Together we tackled chicken binakol (a soup made with young coconut, lemongrass, and oyster mushrooms), laing using local kale and collard greens simmered in coconut milk instead of the traditional (and hard-to-find) taro leaves, and finished off with bibingka, a sticky rice cake dripping with slowly simmered coco jam.
Best feedback of the day? One student confessed she didn't even like coconut to begin with,. but had come to be with a friend. By the day's end she was scooping spoonfuls of young coconut with a smile on her face. "I didn't know coconut could be like this," she told me. Kabayo victory.