Thai Coconut Grater: The Coconut Rabbit กระต่ายขูดมะพร้าว

While my maternal grandmother hardly ever cooked (but the three things she did cook she cooked extremely well, the famous Yellow Chicken being one of them), my paternal grandmother spent much of her life in the kitchen. She was extremely particular about how things were done in her kitchen; everything had to be just so.

I wasn’t as close to my paternal grandmother as I was to my maternal grandmother, so I can hardly recall any quality hang-out time I had with Khun Ya in the kitchen or any place else. I do remember, though, that whenever Khun Ya saw me moseying around the house, looking like I didn’t have enough to keep me busy, she always motioned me into the kitchen and thrust upon the unwilling and exasperated me the task of grating coconut. I went from not knowing how to deal with coconut to knowing almost everything about the darn thing thanks to my paternal grandmother.

I didn’t appreciate it back then. I mean, what kid would want to be trapped in the kitchen, sitting on a weird contraption, grating coconut? I thought it was so uncivilized, so primitive, so backwards, so uncool, so … unnecessary.

You see, when I was growing up, pasteurized coconut milk in aseptic boxes or cans had already been in mainstream use for years. Granted, there were, and perhaps still are, purist home cooks who manually extract coconut milk from the grated fresh coconut meat obtained from the market, but these people have dwindled in number over the years.

When I saw an episode of Martha Stewart Living when she baked her own potato chips one by one, I snorted and chuckled. But I quickly shut up once I remembered Khun Ya who insisted on making curries with the coconut milk which she extracted herself, from the coconut meat which she (or sometimes I) grated herself, from mature coconuts which she picked herself, from the coconut trees which she had planted herself.

My grandmother made Martha Stewart look like a lazy bum.

This traditional coconut grater is literally called the “coconut rabbit” (กระต่ายขูดมะพร้าว) perhaps due to its resemblance to a bunny (I don’t think that’s the case, but whatever …) — with an oblong body and a protruding “head” which is the grating blade. In the past several years, this ancient doodad has gone from being a household gadget to being a museum piece.

This is not to say that the bunnies have disappeared from the face of the earth; you can still find them in some places. They’re just not as widely available as they were decades ago.

During my last trip to Thailand, I had to ask my mother to help find our old coconut bunny for me to bring back to the US. It took quite a bit of effort on her part to locate the ancient gadget which had been stashed away in the garage for years. You see, rarely does anybody use the rabbit any more.

But I can see why this odd-looking tool was so important to Thai cooks in the old day. Mature coconut meat is very tough to grate finely and since the purpose of grating the coconut meat is so that you can squeeze the milk out of every fiber, you want the coconut meat to be grated so finely that the end result resembles wet nut meal. That’s why a flimsy hand grater is not going to do the job;*you need the heavy duty rabbit which requires you to actually sit on it, thereby holding the contraption down with your body weight while you grate away in quick, short strokes to create minuscule flakes as opposed to long, coarse strands. It’s a full body exercise.

To extract coconut milk, lukewarm water, about half the amount of the coconut, is added to grated fresh coconut meat. The milk then gets squeezed out and strained. The first squeeze which is very concentrated coconut cream (literally called the “head” หัวกะทิ) is highly valued and reserved for specific applications. The subsequent yields (the “tail” หางกะทิ) become increasingly thinner as the process continues. After the process is repeated 3-4 more times, the coconut meat will have served its purpose and is to be discarded.

Despite Khun Ya‘s insistence that coconut milk extracted this way creates much better curries than those made from store bought pasteurized coconut milk, a blind taste test shows no difference whatsoever between the two. In my opinion, what makes Khun Ya‘s curries better than anyone else’s is her extraordinary homemade curry paste (which she, of course, ground up herself with the granite mortar and pestle). The method employed in extracting coconut milk is, I think, largely irrelevant. I made my opinion known to Khun Ya, but it always fell on deaf ear.

When she was alive, I couldn’t walk by the kitchen without being told to hop on the bunny and get to work. I hated it. Though the pain has significantly subsided over the years, the bunny and I will always have a love-hate relationship. And if you have ever grated coconut in this manner, you won’t blame me.

But with Khun Ya gone, I kind of miss that hellish task — so much so that I sometimes buy mature coconuts just so I can use the bunny to grate it. Voluntarily.

*Since coconut milk is one of the most heavily used ingredients in Thai cuisine, most of the time the coconut meat is grated for the purpose of milk extraction. Occasionally, mature coconut meat is grated into long, thin strands, somewhat like citrus zest, in which case a hand grater is more appropriate. But with the exception of being used in some old-fashioned desserts, fresh coconut strands are more for decorative purposes and rarely used in every day cooking.

20 Responses to Thai Coconut Grater: The Coconut Rabbit กระต่ายขูดมะพร้าว

  1. zerrin February 10, 2009 at 12:37 am #

    I didn’t know how coconut is grated. I just buy them in package from market. Thnaks to this post, I think I can do it myslef at home.

  2. Maya February 13, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    My mother still has one in Malaysia!

  3. The Other Tiger March 17, 2009 at 6:29 am #

    Very interesting…I’d never heard of these before. Thanks for the informative post!

  4. Jenni Malsingh August 4, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    Interesting device for scraping coconut. I use a machine that you clamp to the table. You rotate a handle and the head, which has serrated teeth, goes round and scrapes the coconut. See pictures on my blog if you are interested:

  5. Temple Of Thai October 7, 2009 at 7:55 am #

    You can get the real thing without having to travel to Thailand!

  6. Uncle Vinny April 8, 2010 at 2:27 am #

    Great story! We had to hand-crank our homemade ice cream when I was a kid, but it was such a rare thing (and the reward was so awesome) that we didn’t mind.

    By the way, I’m not very fond of coconut, but that top photo is insanely gorgeous. Coconut *milk*, of course, is divine.

    Incidentally, your post is surprisingly the only Google result for “my grandmother makes Martha Stewart look”.

  7. melissaczca July 1, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    I love this! I discovered you today, looking for Thai peanut sauce recipe. I recently bought some coconuts and tried to do this very task – am trying to eat more whole and fresh foods. That darn stuff is so hard I gave up after a while — just couldn’t figure out a way to get the meat out without seriously injuring myself 🙂 Our mamas and grammas were so ingenious and dedicated! I took it for granted when I was younger and then when as a young woman I asked my mom about my wonderful gramma’s recipe book, we got it out and it was mostly just lists of ingredients but with no amounts :-(. Sadly she died when I was 10 years old. She lived with us and I loved her with all my heart. If there is a heaven, I hope we will cook together one day. Hugs to you! Since this post is more than a year old I realize you may never see it.

  8. Leela July 1, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    melissaczca – Thanks for sharing with me the memories of your grandma. 🙂 I can identify with pretty much everything you’ve written.

  9. gautam May 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm #

    The coconut half comprises flesh with at least 3 varying consistencies. These, of course, are is a continuous gradient but can ONLY be separated by the traditional grater wielded. Such differentiation is significant to the cooking of a region like West Bengal, a place with ancient historical ties to Shyamadesa.

    Also, varying the length & thickness of the gratings is an important device to add textural contrast to the many coconut + jaggery confections of Bengal. This again calls for an expert, experienced hand.

    Returning to the initial subject, the flesh closest to the lumen of the “nut” is the most tender and has a characteristic mouthfeel that is entirely distinct from the coarser, drier “harder” layer found immediately adjacent to the shell.

    Actually, it is easiest to squeeze milk out of the gratings from this “driest” of all layers.

    The more gelatinous innermost layer tends to hold the milk more jealously within its cell structure. That makes it the most delightful fraction for fresh eating. Here are some of the ways we enjoy it in Bengal.

    1) When making ghee, either cultured butter churned from yogurt OR cultured clotted cream ( BOTH ripened under controlled conditions to enhance microbes that promote ghee aromas)are very gently rendered over wood fires to drive out water, leaving clarified butter plus a chewy-crisp golden protein fraction (the equivalent of cracklings!).

    This ghee crackling is mixed with fresh popped rice, coarse turbinado sugar crystals (a hint] and the tender fraction of grated coconut. Heaven!

    2. Many “dry” vegetarian dishes are finished with a topping of crushed fried black gram vadis [sun dried paste] for crunch, alternated with strips of this tender fraction of coconut for flavor, mouthfeel and aesthetics.

    Much more!

    But we tend to use only layers 2 & 3 for milk!!

  10. Kara September 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    I was tremendously interested but didn’t get a sense of what the bunny looked like from those photos. For those interested, Google shows: (but you have to go a few pages into the search results to find it)

  11. Bmwerks December 6, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    We have a few crossovers with Thai foods(fruits n so forth). Though what we use them for seems quite different, most times.

    In Jamaica we use the coconut milk in rice(brown) and peas to enhance the flavour. when i was smaller before packaged coconut milk was introduced, we would crack the shell and split the coconut into pieces then using a dull knife husk the shell from the flesh.
    it was then cut up and placed in the blender with water and blended for a while until super fine then we strained off the first part, added more water and blended it again, usually we did this 2-3 times.

  12. Radhika June 11, 2013 at 1:21 am #

    Oh, my goodness, Leela. This is the very same contraption we used in India to grate coconut all through my childhood and when I lived with my mother-in-law! And she’s more frightening than your grandma.

  13. Orana September 6, 2013 at 6:20 am #

    Hi Leela,
    I have been looking for what this contraption was called a while ago when I was writing up a post about Coconut Milk. Now I know its called the coconut rabbit, and I love the name. I found and used one in Koh Yao Noi some months back. The story is here:
    On another note: I was hoping you had a recipe for ผัดผักรวม
    Ive been living off it for months and writing up a post about it…..
    Thanks for all the great recipes by the way!


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