Cheap Eats:
Galinha Cafeal
  Grilled Chicken with Coconut Sauce

Tree of Life—it sounds somewhat mythical or mystical, but in many parts of the world, not only does such a tree exist, but it exists in abundance. The coconut palm is called the tree of life in many of the countries that depend on it, not only for the highly nutrient-dense flesh of its nuts, but also for cloth, housing, and utensils, which can be made from the tough coconut fiber and hard nut shells.

For almost one-third of the planet's population, coconut is a major food group. While it is enjoyed worldwide, it is most important in humid tropical countries. It is a dominant ingredient in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Oceania, and is an essential part of the diet in West Africa.

Actually, during World War II, many soldiers in the Pacific Theater found it to be a tree of life for another reason. The sugary water found inside the coconut seed is so pure that it could be used to transfuse patients when bottles of sterile glucose solution were in short supply.

And just so you know, that sugary water inside the coconut is called coconut water, not coconut milk. Coconut milk is something that is produced by a laborious process of grating coconut meat, adding a little water, and then squeezing out the milk. Fortunately, while we can still make our own coconut milk if we wish, most of us now have access to canned coconut milk.

It seems that the coconut first came to the attention of the Western world in the 6th century. Egyptian and Arab merchants were exploring the distant shores of the Indian Ocean by this time, and it is likely that they brought coconuts back with them from these voyages. However, it didn't make a huge impression at the time, and it basically vanished off the charts until Marco Polo headed east. The fact that he called it "Pharoah's nut" indicates that he at least knew that it had appeared earlier in Egyptian records. He seems to have been the first Westerner to pay much attention to it as a food. Encountering it in India, Sumatra, and the Nicobar Islands, he described it as "as sweet as sugar and as white as milk," and wrote that it provided a complete meal of drink and meat. But it still didn't catch on.

Magellan wrote about coconut a couple of centuries later, having encountered it somewhere in the vicinity of Guam. But it wasn't until the buccaneer/explorer William Dampier brought it to England from his voyages to Australia and New Guinea (1686-1701) that the coconut developed an audience in the West.

Because coconuts float and then take root wherever they strike land (even after months in salt water), it is difficult to nail down an original birthplace for the plant. It seems likely that it started life in the Indo-Malaysian region, or possibly in the Pacific islands. Coconuts did arrive in the Americas before Europeans did, making landfall on the far west side of South America, but they had not been carried to the Caribbean by the time of Columbus's visit.

Today, though coconut has gained popularity as a confection in most parts of the world, it still has its greatest audience in the tropics, where heat and rain make the tree flourish. The recipe below is a tasty, slightly exotic, but relatively simple way of preparing chicken. It comes from Mozambique, part of Portuguese Africa.

Galinha Cafeal
(Grilled Chicken with Coconut Sauce)

½ cup lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ tsp. crushed red pepper

½ tsp. salt

1 3-lb. chicken, cut up

1 Tbs. vegetable oil or melted butter

1 cup coconut milk

Place the chicken in a large, deep bowl. Combine the garlic, lemon juice, red pepper, and salt, and pour it over the chicken. Turn the pieces several times to be sure each is covered with marinade. Marinate chicken for 2‑4 hours at room temperature or for 4‑6 hours in the refrigerator. Turn every 20‑30 minutes, to keep marinade evenly distributed.

Arrange chicken pieces, meat side down, on the rack of a broiling pan. Mix the oil or butter with the coconut milk and brush each chicken piece with the mixture. Broil chicken about 5‑6 inches from the heat source for 8 minutes. Baste the chicken with the coconut mixture, and broil chicken another 8 minutes. Turn chicken over, and repeat the basting and broiling on the other side.

Remove chicken to a heated plate and keep warm. Pour the juices that have collected in the bottom of the broiler into a small saucepan. If there is a lot of fat, you may wish to skim some of it off. Then add the rest of the coconut mixture and cook over low, stirring constantly, until heated through (do not boil). Put the sauce in a bowl or gravy boat and serve alongside the chicken.

Serves 2‑4.


When using an acid-based marinade such as lemon juice, it is best to use a non-reactive container. Pyrex, glass, ceramic, or plastic would be good choices for marinating the chicken.

As always, you can use 3 pounds of your favorite chicken parts in place of a whole chicken cut up.

Coconut milk can usually be found in the Asian foods aisle of your grocery store. Do not use coconut milk identified as "light." Be aware that coconut milk separates and even hardens while it's sitting in the can, so shake it hard before pouring.

Back to Cheap Eats Introduction
Conversion Tables

Home Join Contact Members