Travel: Tijuana coconut treat

Sometimes simple street food is the best tourist find.

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    Raw coconut with lime juice, cayenne pepper, and salt make a tasty snack for a hot day.
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“You are going where?” This was the response I got when I told various friends and family that my boyfriend and I were going to take a one-day adventure from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico. I admit that with the Mexican drug war at full bloom I had some trepidation about crossing the border – even if it was just a short drive from downtown San Diego.

But we were going on a Monday morning in May. While I don’t have a lot of experience with Mexico, Thomas, on the other hand, speaks Spanish and has traveled extensively in Central and South America. Despite the fact that he lives so close to the Mexican border he had never been to Tijuana, probably much in the same way that I’ve never actually walked the full extent of the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston. It’s just too close to qualify as an actual adventure – until you have out of town guests.

So off we went. After a 20 minute drive, we parked the car, got out, and walked across the border.

Seeing that it was a Monday morning, Tijuana’s streets were deserted of tourist throngs. While it was nice not to push through crowds, other than the locals going about their daily business, we attracted a lot of attention on nearly every street corner by shopkeepers. “Hey, senorita! Come in and see what I have!” (Not today, thanks.)

Being the only tourists for blocks on end got tiring. So after I posed for a photo in front of the restaurant where Cesar salad was invented, we were ready for a snack. A food cart appeared like an oasis of calm and order on the busy street. Its bright canopy and trim green-and-white gingham tablecloth held rows of inviting, fresh fruit in plastic cups. In the back, were elegant “straws” of fresh, raw coconut. Thomas focused in on those right away and bought us a cup to share.

The straws were expertly carved, sweet and crunchy with a hint of citrus and heat. We asked the vendors how they seasoned the coconut. The answer was three simple ingredients: lime juice, chili pepper, and salt. A perfect snack for our amble through Tijuana.

Back home in New England, when the temperature began to climb above 90 degrees F., this summer, I thought it would be a good time to recreate that Tijuana coconut treat.

I found a whole coconut at the grocery store but was quickly stumped on how to open the thing. Some instructions on its orange net casing said to use “an ice pick” to open the seam.

An ice pick? I even tried to watch a Gourmet Food magazine video demonstrating how to open a coconut, but that was no help either.

After a go with my Ryobi drill, I gave up on that coconut.

Then I stopped by Whole Foods, because sometimes they sell raw coconut alongside their prepared fruit. There was none on the shelf that day but a very helpful Produce Guy said “we have a hammer,” and took a whole coconut “out back.”

He returned in about 15 minutes with fresh coconut pieces. They certainly weren’t the elegantly carved straws that we enjoyed in Tijuana, but just as sweet and crunchy.

The next time you want a sweet (and nutrient rich) snack on a hot day, try this Tijuana treat. I used cayenne pepper and kosher salt because I like the crunch. I also added the zest of the lime for added color and flavor.

Coconut Treat

1 coconut, cut into strips or pieces (whatever you can manage)
Juice plus zest of one lime
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pinches kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and serve in a small glass, or refrigerate and serve chilled.

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