Coconut water and coconut oil have been much talked about products over the past couple of years (and I’ll be adding my thoughts on those in a post soon), but I hear a lot less about their close relative, coconut milk. This is a hugely versatile product and I got my beautiful Thai friend, Ani, who is a huge cooking fan, to show me the coconut milk ropes…
I have certainly come across coconut milk before, obviously. Walk through any market in Thailand, Malaysia or even New Zealand and at least one of the stalls will be a coconut milk stand, where the vendors first grate the coconut flesh very finely – these days using a machine rather than the manual graters of old – and then soak it in hot water and squeeze it to produce rich, creamy coconut milk.
Refrigerated, this ‘first pressing’ will solidify into a paste to be used in a wide variety of everyday dishes. Subsequent pressings will become thinner and thinner.
Coconut palms are native to the Malay Peninsula, but today are found in all tropical countries around the globe. No holiday album is complete without the quintessential tropical holiday snap featuring our friend, Mr.Coconut! Each tree can produce fruit almost all year round, bearing between 60 and 100 coconuts annually.
The ‘milk’ is just one of the by-products of the worlds largest seed and should not be confused with coconut juice or water, which is the clear liquid found in the centre of the coconut that makes a refreshing, and hugely popular, drink. I’m going to talk about that in another post, though.
Coconuts not only produce food but also oil (for cooking or fuel), fuel (from the husk) and shelter (from the leaves). Even the shell of the coconut can be used as a vessel or fashioned into utensils. I’ve seen this first hand in the Maldives where men made everything from tools to children’s toys out of coconuts!
The milk, however, is perhaps the most versatile part of all, I’m told, and is rather underrated. Most of us would be more used to using coconut milk (thin) or cream (thick) from a can, carton or coconut powder, which is reconstituted with water.
Both coconut milk and cream have separate uses, with the cream used mainly to enrich dishes or make sweets such as custards or to finish off cold desserts such as Malaysian classics like Gula Melaka. My Thai friend Ani helped me make this and it was delicious!
Coconut milk is integral to many Asian meat, fish or vegetable curries or soups such as Malaysian laksa. Another beautiful dish I had the pleasure of helping my Thai friend create. It can be added to rice as it cooks, and gives a lovely creamy texture to raw fish ceviche or kokoda. It adds flavour and creaminess to satay sauces and has been embraced the world over. It can now be found in anything from a classic French macaron to a filling in a Swiss chocolate.
It also makes great ice cream and, of course, a pina colada cocktail wouldn’t be the same without it.
Make Your Own Coconut Milk
It is relatively easy to make your own coconut milk if you have a little time. I can testify to this, having tried it today! The flavour of fresh coconut milk is quite extraordinary, as the packaged product we are more accustomed to, has often been further diluted with water. The pure stuff tastes fantastic!
Simply take a fresh coconut and strip off the husk (You can place the coconut in a 180 degree Celsius oven for 15 minutes to shrink the flesh away from the shell, making it easier to prise off once opened) then crack it open. The best way to do this is to take a blunt instrument, such as the back of a cleaver and, holding the coconut in one hand, give it a couple of whacks around the equator until it cracks. Hold it over a bowl to catch the glorious, all important juice.
You can buy a coconut grater from Asian food stores and scrape the meat out of the shell quite easily. Otherwise prose the flesh out, grate by hand, or pass it through the grater attachment of a strong food processor.
Or you could avoid the above process by using desiccated coconut. Each whole coconut yields roughly 3 cups of grated coconut.
Take the grated coconut and add hot water (the less water you use, the thicker and creamier the resulting liquid). Leave to soak and then put into a muslin-lined sieve placed over a bowl. Squeeze the muslin to extract all the coconut milk. This process can be repeated at least one more time. Refrigerate immediately and use the same day or freeze.
Shake the can or box before opening to mix the thin and thick part. Even coconut milk, which is thinner, will separate when left to stand. Or, do not shame and instead separate the thick and the thin parts for different uses.
Once coconut milk boils do not cover or it may curdle.
Refrigerate immediately and use within a day.
Coconut milk can be frozen.
Coconut milk goes with bananas, beef, lamb, chicken, chillies, like, palm sugar, peanuts, pineapple, rice, rum, seafood, spices and more.
Find some great recipes using coconut milk here: