That easy-to-use package of preshredded coconut in the baking aisle? It’s not just coconut. Take a look at the fine print and besides coconut and sugar you’ll find all kinds of preservatives and chemical whiteners. Some brands of canned coconut milk also contain fillers and preservatives. So, whether you want to whip up a Thai curry or a coconut cream pie, why not go to the source? Most large supermarkets carry inexpensive fresh coconuts in their produce sections.

However, getting into the meat of a coconut can take some doing. As a newly devoted coconut fan thanks to a recent trip to India, San Francisco Chronicle writer Janet Fletcher shares everything she knows in the piece “Shell Game.” Besides several Southeast Asian–inspired recipes, the article includes numerous handy sidebars with tips for choosing, cracking, grating, and making milk out of your coconut, as well as on choosing and using canned coconut milk.

Long reviled as one of the “bad” tropical fats, coconut is undergoing something of a renaissance in light of recent scientific findings about the dangers of man-made trans fats. Yes, coconut is very high in saturated fat. But as Fletcher points out, coconut oil also helps raise the level of HDL—dubbed the “good” cholesterol—while remaining in the midrange for affecting the ratio of high-density to low-density lipoproteins. Fletcher points out that “Malaysians, Thais, Indians and Indonesians — all major coconut eaters — don’t even come close to our rate of obesity, and Americans are far more likely to die of heart disease than Malaysians or Thais are.”

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