Why It Works
- Making your own jelly allows you to control its flavor and sweetness.
- Using coconut in many forms packs the salad with layers of flavor and varying textures.
Fruit salad, a mixture of fresh or canned fruits, was introduced to the Filipino diet during the American occupation. Like embutido (Filipino meatloaf) and Filipino spaghetti, fruit salad has been Filipinized―a term applied to dishes that have been borrowed and adapted to suit local tastes and use available ingredients. Nowadays, most Filipino versions of fruit salad use a combination of canned fruit cocktail and table cream (often called light cream or coffee cream, it has anywhere from 18% to 30% milk fat).
Buko pandan is a kind of variation on that Filipinized fruit salad. Originally concocted on the island of Bohol in the Eastern Visayas region, this lush dessert is made with pandan jelly, shredded young coconut meat (known as buko), table cream, and sweetened condensed milk. It’s widely enjoyed across the country and is served at home, in restaurants, and, often, fiestas. Buko pandan is also a popular flavor option for other desserts, like ice cream, pastries, and cakes.
I remember making this dish with my lola (grandmother). We would visit the nearby palengke, or market, to buy agar-agar―a gelling agent derived from seaweed that was sold in brightly-colored dried bars―and fresh buko from a coconut peddler. To select the perfect coconut, he knocked on coconuts in search of the youngest, juiciest one (a hollow sound indicates an older coconut with less juice). Armed with a machete, he would trim the top, shave off the outer husk, and let you sip the juice. Once finished, he sliced the coconut in half and scraped out the meat for you to take home.
This recipe is inspired by the one I grew up making. For the jelly, I use coconut water, as opposed to plain water, to infuse it with a subtly-sweet coconut flavor. I also reach for powdered gelatin―convenient and easier to find in the US than agar-agar―which imbues the jelly with a less brittle, bouncier texture. A touch of buko pandan extract, a flavored extract used extensively in the Philippines, provides a pop of vivid green and grassy vanilla notes.
For the creamy component, I use unsweetened coconut cream and sweetened condensed coconut milk to let the coconut take center stage―a move that makes this salad dairy-free. I like to mix in macapuno (preserved young coconut strips) and nata de coco (cubed coconut gel made from fermented coconut water) for added chewiness, both of which complement the bouncy jelly. Lastly, a sprinkle of toasted pinipig, or pounded young rice, on top provides a little crunch.
- For the Jelly:
- 2 cups (475ml) unsweetened coconut water, divided (see note)
- 1/2 ounce unflavored gelatin powder (about 4 1/2 teaspoons; 14g), such as Knox
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) buko pandan extract (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (15g) light brown sugar
- For the Buko Pandan:
- 2 ounces (60ml) unsweetened coconut cream, such as Kara
- 2 ounces (60ml) sweetened condensed coconut milk (see note)
- One 12-ounce (340g) bottle nata de coco, rinsed (see note)
- One 12-ounce (340g) bottle macapuno (see note)
- 2 tablespoons (25g) pinipig (see note)
For the Jelly: Pour 1/2 cup coconut water into a medium heatproof bowl and evenly sprinkle gelatin over surface. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, bring remaining 1 1/2 cups coconut water to a boil over high heat. Add extract and brown sugar and whisk until sugar is completely dissolved.
Add coconut water mixture to gelatin mixture and whisk until gelatin is fully dissolved.
Transfer mixture to an 8-inch square glass baking dish and let cool at room temperature for 45 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until fully set, at least 3 hours. Using a sharp knife, portion jelly into 64 1-inch squares and refrigerate until ready to use.
For the Buko Pandan: In a large bowl, whisk together coconut cream and condensed coconut milk until well combined. Add nata de coco, macapuno, and jelly squares. Using a flexible spatula, gently fold ingredients together, taking care to avoid breaking up the jelly squares. Cover and refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, in a small stainless-steel skillet, toast pinipig over medium heat, stirring and swirling frequently, until puffed and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and set aside.
Transfer buko pandan to individual serving bowls, garnish with toasted pinipig, and serve.
8-inch square glass baking dish.
For the unsweetened coconut water, you can use frozen coconut water, found in Filipino and Asian markets in the frozen aisle; just thaw in the refrigerator overnight before using. If you’re unable to source frozen coconut water, substitute with other unsweetened coconut water such as Harmless Harvest organic coconut water.
Buko pandan extract can be found in Asian markets or online.
Condensed coconut milk is a non-dairy alternative option for conventional sweetened condensed milk. It can be found in Asian markets, at specialty markets such as Whole Foods, and online.
Nata de coco, or coconut gel, is made from fermented coconut water and possesses a chewy, gelatinous texture. It can be found in Filipino and Asian markets, or online.
Macapuno, or coconut sport strings, are preserved young coconut strips made from a variety of coconut that has soft, jelly-like flesh and contains very little water. It's sweeter than other kinds of coconut and is commonly used in Filipino desserts. Macapuno can be found in Filipino and Asian markets, or online.
Pinipig, or pounded young rice, can be found in most Asian and Filipino markets and online.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The jelly can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Buko pandan can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.