Coconut Bread Made the Traditional Way
The Ngabe (Ngobe) Indians are the original, indigenous people of Panama, and Costa Rica. They have a village only a short cuycayo paddle away from Urraca Private Island in Bocas del Toro. Many of them have worked construction on Urraca through the years and provide fresh fish, crabs, and lobsters daily.
The Ngobe have many traditions which have been kept alive through the decades. The women sometimes still wear the traditional, bright colored dresses. Ngobe boys and men still fish by using a hand-line or spearfishing.
One of my personal favorite Ngobe traditions is the pan de coco or coconut bread. These coconut-infused rolls are incredible, and my Ngobe friend Valentina makes it the traditional way, as taught by her mother. Valentina allowed me the privilege of watching her make a batch of these delicious homemade buns.
Start with Homemade Coconut Milk
Valentina starts the process by shredding the meat of coconuts grown right outside her stilted hut. She uses a hand-hammered metal contraption which has a sharp rough surface on one side, perfect for grating the coconut. The object is then flipped over and placed over a large bowl, where it now acts as a colander. Water is added to the shredded coconut. This is then squeezed out over this homemade strainer to create the coconut milk which is infused into the dough.
Traditional bread ingredients are added to the coconut milk – flour, sugar, yeast, and salt. They are all mixed and once they come together, she kneads the dough extensively. Once it has reached the desired texture, she covers it to allow it to rise.
In the meantime, she begins building her “oven.” The wood fire is built in a corner of her open kitchen. She gets the firewood and kindling burning to allow the coals to get to the desired temperature, ideal for making the best bread.
Once the dough has risen, Valentina expertly begins cutting off small chunks and forming it into perfect sized buns. She has her own method, which you can tell she has perfected by making thousands and thousands of these rolls over the years.
The rows of buns are then covered and allowed to rise a second time. After about thirty minutes, she uses an empty, clean wine bottle to flatten each individual roll. Holes are poked in the top of the rolls to allow steam to escape while cooking.
The Wood-Burning Oven
Now that the coals are hot on the open fire, Valentina places coconut husks on a large piece of tin and places it on the top of a large pot which sits directly on top of the coals to get the pan (oven) hot. Once it is ready, the flattened rolls are laid on the bottom and sides of the very lightly greased pan, one at a time. The large tin with the husks is placed back on top of the pan to create heat on all sides of the pan and allow the bread to cook evenly.
After five to six minutes, a perfectly browned and delicious coconut bread roll is ready to be removed and allowed to cool. Like most baked goods these are amazing right out of the oven. The texture is not overly dense and the coconut flavor is subtle. The bread compliments sweet and savory dishes. The rolls can be sliced and used for sandwiches or hamburger buns. We toast the coconut bread and serve them with breakfast, covered with spinach, tomato, feta, and a poached egg. Yum!
Valentina has the reputation for making the best coconut bread throughout her village. She learned this recipe from her mother when she was 11-years-old and she has taught it to her own daughters, keeping the Ngobe tradition of pan de coco, or coconut bread, alive for the next generation.