The coconut is a versatile fruit that plays an important part in many cuisines. The entire coconut and the parent palm tree can be used - the fruit and liquid for food, the inedible shells for fuel, bowls and utensils, the leaves for weaving and the wood of the tree for building. It is grown across Southeast Asia and South America as well as Polynesia and in other tropical islands and climates. When young, the coconut is full of liquid, with a thin layer of gelatinous flesh. These are easy to distinguish from mature coconuts because the young ones are sold with the outer husk chopped off to reveal a creamy inner shell that is shaped so it is flat on the bottom and comes to a sharp point on top. If you are eating it in a restaurant, the vendor will chop an opening into the top for easy access to the refreshing liquid and soft 'meat'. Older coconuts are sold either with the hairy husk removed or left on. Working with a mature coconut isn't the easiest of kitchen tasks. When selecting, shake the fruit and and opt for one that is full of liquid. Reject any coconuts with soft spots - these indicate that the coconut is probably mouldy or fermented. Find the three 'eyes' on the fruit and pierce them with a clean screwdriver or ice pick, then drain out the juice. Carefully tap around the outside of the coconut with a knife then give it a quick, hard knock on the seam with a hammer and it should break open. The hard flesh can be grated with a special coconut scraper (look for them at the Thai and Vietnamese shops in Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai) or chopped in a food processor. For coconut milk, cover the grated coconut with water, bring it to the boil and then strain well through cheesecloth. Squeeze it tightly to get out the last, richest drops of liquid. If this is too much trouble, freshly grated coconut and fresh coconut milk are available at some Southeast Asian food shops, while canned coconut milk is available at most grocery shops. Coconut milk is used to flavour rice (the famous nasi lemak of Malaysia), curries, soups, beverages and sweets. Coconut has more flavour when toasted and is delicious sprinkled over vanilla ice cream with a shot of rum. For coconut custards, substitute the sugar and milk (or milk and cream) from the recipe with canned coconut milk. Bake as the recipe instructs. Desiccated coconut makes wonderful candies, cookies and other cakes. I prefer the long-strand desiccated coconut because it has more texture, but the type most commonly available in Hong Kong is powder-fine.