I didn't tell the friendly guy in the blue-and-yellow polo shirt what I was planning to do, but that didn't matter. He already knew.
The cashier, an employee of a certain Swedish purveyor of stylish-yet-affordable home furnishings, took one look at the items I'd placed on his conveyor belt - six glass bottles with stopper tops - and perked up.
"Nice. You making coquito?"
He was dead-on. Right now, as we bear down on Christmas, we're in the thick of peak coquito season, when Puerto Ricans swarm their kitchens to blend up big batches of their island's answer to eggnog.
To many, the creamy coconut concoction is just as crucial to the holiday experience as candy canes, glazed ham, and cookies shaped like tiny men. But as much fun as it is to make and drink, it serves a more broad-minded purpose: sharing this specialty is more meaningful than sipping it. In the coquito economy, 'tis better to give than to receive - though receiving is pretty sweet, too.
Though Anglo nog typically comprises a combination of eggs, milk, sugar, and spices cut by any number of spirits, coquito is built upon two elements vital to boricua life: coconut and rum. Sipped cold in small portions, it's sweet, rich, and warmly spiced like conventional nog, but its lighter, yolk-free consistency and well-balanced tropical bite set it apart.
The name itself can be taken as a play on words. Coco, or coconut, is a primary ingredient, making the addition of -ito ("little coconut," literally) an informal term of endearment. But it can also be interpreted as a nod to the coquí, the singing frogs that serve as a symbol of Puerto Rican identity.
There's no official origin story when it comes to coquito. Some speculate it descended from ron con coco (rum with coconut), a proto-cocktail drunk by hardworking campesinos in the sugarcane fields. Others believe it's more contemporary, an indigenous interpretation of eggnog that bubbled organically out of America's territorial relationship with the island.
There's little hard info pointing one way or another, and the Puerto Ricans I've asked about this don't have concrete answers, either. They just know they like it. Regardless of when and how it started, coquito has come to mean a great deal to their families, both back home and here on the mainland.
Two things really struck me about coquito. The first is the amount of pride coquito crafters take in their work. Like chili, barbecue, or home-brewed beer, it's something that begs for competitive comparison. Everyone believes they have the best method, and they want to prove it.
That's a directive my friend Rachel Burgos, a South Philly resident originally from Paterson, N.J., takes seriously. Each December, she and her cousins take part in an elaborate coquito-making contest, which she won in 2014.
"It's really just bragging rights," she said. "And I brag so much."
I sat in on Burgos' prep session for this year's contest. "Everyone has their own thing," she told me, displaying hers: a simmering saucepan of spices forming a potent flavor concentrate, plus cans of Coco Lopez, a trusted cream of coconut commonly used for pina coladas.
Those elements, plus additions such as coconut milk, condensed milk, and generous glugs of white rum, make nice in a blender before being funneled into empty liquor bottles. (Yes, Ikea carries well-sized vessels, but you know the coquito is truly legit when it's given to you in an empty Bacardi or Don Q bottle - rum-cycling.)
The second fascinating aspect of coquito culture is the ingenuity involved. Burgos' rendition is straightforward, but another coquito-skilled friend, Alex Rivera, isn't afraid to mess around. Although he also starts by creating a strong spice té in a saucepan, he uses water drawn from fresh coconuts for it. Rivera pulls their skins open with a knife, a gentler approach than his father, Rafael, who has been known to hurl a coconut down a flight of stairs to crack it.
Alex Rivera swears by Ron Cañita, a particular "extra fuerte" Puerto Rican rum brand. "If anything, that is the secret," he said. But there's another factor in play here that's not Puerto Rican at all: Nesquik, the chocolate milk powder that imbues his stuff with a familiar hue and flavor.
The North Philly native has come across coquito blessed with all sorts of unexpected additions - pineapple, papaya, even crushed Oreos. The guy at Ikea was quick to tell me he likes his coquito flavored with Nutella.
The giving traditions surrounding coquito are just as important as its creation and consumption. It's common for coquito-makers to whip up huge caches of the stuff to serve as presents, as housewarming gifts, or to barter or sell on the side.
If you land some, you know you're in someone's good graces. Be sure to make it right by not being stingy with your stash. Just like the fleeting holidays themselves, Burgos said, "this is the type of thing that doesn't last."
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene . . . since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish, or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.
Drew Lazor's Coquito
Makes approximately 1.5 liters
For the tea:
3 cinnamon sticks
5 star anise pods
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 17-ounce can coconut water (e.g. Vita Coco)
For the coquito:
1 can coconut milk
1 can cream of coconut (e.g. Coco Lopez or Goya)
1 can evaporated milk
1 can condensed milk
White rum, to taste (optional: dark rum)
3 tablespoons spice tea (recipe above)
Whole cinnamon and nutmeg, for grating
For the tea: In a small saucepan over high heat, combine spices and coconut water. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer 15-20 minutes, until liquid has reduced by about half. Once reduced, remove saucepan from heat, allowing it to cool; strain out spices and set aside.
For the coquito: In a blender, combine coconut milk, cream of coconut, evaporated milk, and condensed milk with a handful of ice cubes and rum to taste. (Not sure how much rum to add? Start conservatively and work your way up, tasting along the way.)
Add 3 tablespoons of the concentrated spice tea, plus some freshly grated cinnamon and nutmeg, and blend until smooth. Taste frequently along the way and adjust spice and alcohol levels to your liking.
Once you're satisfied, funnel the coquito into a plastic or glass bottle with a tight cap or stopper and refrigerate. Allow it to chill for a minimum of 24 hours before serving.
Make sure you shake it well before serving to reincorporate the coconut solids that may have separated during refrigeration.EndText