Coconut milk is made by extracting the flesh of the coconut, grating it and soaking it in hot water. It is then left to cool and strained through cheesecloth. The coconut milk separates, creating coconut milk and coconut cream, and is sold in varying densities. Fresh coconut milk is generally not available in the UK as it has a very short shelf life, but tinned versions are readily available in supermarkets.
Not to be confused with coconut water, which is the liquid found inside the fruit (and has seen a huge popularity boom in the health food market in recent years), coconut milk is high in vitamin B3 and still considered to be good for the body due to its make up of medium chain fatty acids. These are easily digested and even considered by some to promote weight loss.
A good substitute for cow’s milk, coconut milk is lactose free, which means it’s great for both allergy sufferers and vegans alike. It is also a more sustainable and environmentally friendly choice than cow’s milk. However, coconut milk is much higher in calories and fat than cow’s milk, so it should be consumed in moderation.
When buying coconut milk, look for tins that are stabilizer- and additive-free. The coconut milk will separate naturally, but a swift shake will bring it back together again.
Coconut milk can be used in both savoury and sweet preparations, and is used traditionally in a lot of Asian cooking. Thai green curry and laksa are two of the most well know dishes but it can be used in most curries as a lighter (and tastier) alternative to cream.
Shellfish and coconut milk go hand in hand – try a big pot of mussels cooked in a curried coconut milk sauce or a seafood soup. The milk gives a luxurious, silky sheen to vegetarian and vegan soups, too; try broccoli, pumpkin, asparagus or cauliflower.
Coconut milk is great in desserts. Try replacing the milk in rice pudding for a dairy-free option or making a tropical coconut sorbet or ice cream. A little coconut milk is also a great addition to a healthy smoothie.
Most recipes do not call for a whole tin of coconut milk, but fortunately it freezes well and will keep for a couple of months in the freezer. Keep for up to three days in the the fridge after transferring out of the tin into a plastic container.
For a simple supper, try Andy Waters’ Thai chicken soup or Alfred Prasad’s delicious Chettinad chicken curry. Marcello Tully mixes Brazilian flavours with coconut milk in his inviting Brazilian lime fish stew, while Paul Ainsworth’s Mussel broth uses fresh, bright Asian ingredients to create a light lunch. For something a little more substantial, why not try Peter Gordon’s Duck and coconut laksa with grilled sweetcorn.
Fancy a challenge? Alan Murchison’s White chocolate panna cotta with honeycomb makes a superb dinner party dessert garnished with fresh strawberries and Graham Hornigold uses a coconut milk anglaise in his complex Sheep’s milk mousse, pandan curd and caramelised puffed rice.