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Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 2

Kasma Loha-unchit, January 1st, 2013

The coconut milk-tasting exercise used to be an eye- and palate-opening experience for my cooking students on the very first session of their four-week beginning Thai cooking class. (I retired from the classes in May 2020.) They were given 8 to 10 different brands of coconut milk to taste, ranging from excellent to mediocre to awful and unfit for consumption. Half or more of the cans ended up being thrown out. The point was made and the lesson learned: not all coconut milk is the same, so don’t just go out and buy any brand if you wish to make a delicious Thai curry or dessert.

Tasting Coconut Milk

Tasting coconut milk

This valuable learning tool has become expensive with the price of coconut milk doubled and tripled what it was a couple of years ago due to the acute coconut shortage in Thailand – the world’s major producer and exporter of canned coconut milk. And it’s unlikely that the price will return to former levels any time soon (see our last blog about the coconut shortage). For someone who hates waste, it’s painful for me to see $10 to $15 gurgling down the drain. But it’s definitely well worth it for my students to learn to distinguish subtle differences through their sense of taste and come to know that choosing the best ingredients is an important starting point to becoming a good cook.

Along with the price hike, the quality has changed in some of the brands of coconut milk and not necessarily for the better. In order to meet rising demand with a reduced and limited supply of coconuts, companies have developed new ways to make more coconut milk out of fewer coconuts. That, of course, affects quality.

Students Tasting

Students tasting coconut milks

Canned coconut milk has become lighter and it’s now difficult to find cans with enough cream for some of those dishes that require rich coconut cream. My students find out from their tasting exercise that cans labelled as “coconut cream” are not necessarily creamier or richer than those labelled simply as “coconut milk.” In the past, I’ve depended on Chaokoh and Mae Ploy brands to supply me with the rich cream I needed for dishes such as haw moek (curried fish mousse), choo chee curry and rich desserts like coconut custards. These two brands are widely available in Southeast Asian markets in the Bay Area and usually come up top in tasting exercises.

Mae Ploy

Mae Ploy coconut milk

Each can of the same brand can have varying amounts of cream if it does not contain an emulsifier. I rely on shaking the can to determine how much cream it contains. If it sloshes like water, there’s no question that it is light; if it gurgles like a thick fluid, then it’s likely to be fairly rich; and if shaking hard produces no sound whatsoever and room temperature is cooler than 78 degrees in the store, then the can is likely to contain almost all cream. The coconut oil found in coconut cream firms up when the weather is cool; its melting point is 78 degrees. The shake test is how I collect my cans of thick cream for those Thai dishes that require them – and not by buying brands that say “coconut cream” on the label. Mae Ploy brand still has good cream content and the cans that pass the shake test can be relied on for those rich coconut-based dishes.

Avoid buying “light coconut milk” since you’ll be paying mostly for water. The flavor is in the cream, so choose cans that contain rich milk and then you can thin it with water any way you wish if you want your curry or soup to be lighter. But don’t be afraid of the oil in coconut milk; it’s one of the best fats for you and can actually help you lose weight as it has the ability to increase metabolism and burn off fat from other sources in your meal. (See The Truth About Coconut Oil on our website).


Chaokoh coconut milk

Last year at the height of the coconut shortage when prices rose dramatically, I started noticing that Chaokoh had become lighter and, instead of having a thicker and sometimes coagulated cream on top and watery liquid on the bottom of the can, it appeared more emulsified. When heated, instead of melting down to a smooth, lighter fluid, it thickened up as if it contained starch. At the same time, it had become almost impossible to separate the oil from the cream in the first step of making a curry – frying the curry paste in coconut cream. This was frustrating for some of my students who emailed to ask what’s wrong with the Chaokoh coconut milk they’re buying. I also noticed that when making peanut sauce in class, the sauce unusually thickened more than I wanted it to.

Suspecting that starch had been added to the product without stating so on the label, Michael emailed the company to ask if they indeed had done so. Initially, we didn’t receive a reply. Michael emailed them an additional two times – again without any response. Finally, in frustration, he emailed them to say that we had recommended their product to thousands of our students over the years and if we didn’t hear from them, we could “un-recommend” their brand. That mild threat generated a prompt response.

Although they deny having added starch, they admit that their product now contains more carbohydrates than before. From our understanding of their reply, it seems that they have found a way to grind and reduce the pulp completely so that more of it is incorporated into the coconut milk. Because there is more pulp (i.e., carbohydrates), when the creamier-looking stuff on the top of the can is heated, there is little fat to be separated and that’s why you can’t see oil floating on top as you used to for frying your curry paste. At the same time, the milk thickens with the pulp acting like starch. Their reply also explains why their product looks more emulsified and why you won’t see thick coagulated cream as in the past on cold days or when the cans are refrigerated to make it easier to separate the cream in making dishes like haw moek.


Aroy-D coconut milk

Thais do like to see a thin layer of oil floating on the top of their curries. It gives color to the dish instead of the pale whitish color of opaque coconut milk. Nowadays, to accomplish this and to help fry the curry paste to a tastier result, I recommend my students to buy and use pure coconut oil to fry curry pastes when they are making curries. Using other oils will add an oiler and often incompatible taste.

Although Chaokoh is now more or less low-fat, it still has good flavor. A good test of its superior flavor is when we used it to make coconut sorbet. It’s still creamy and has delicious coconut flavor. It does, however, contain a preservative.

For people who wish to stay away from preservatives, a readily available Thai brand is Aroy-D. It has fairly good coconut flavor, though when compared side-by-side with Chaokoh, it tastes a little bland and has less of the natural sweetness of fresh coconut milk. Some of this weakness can be balanced during cooking with the addition of palm sugar. Aroy-D has a new product: a 19 oz.-size can labelled as “Coconut Cream” with only coconut and water as the ingredients. It’s the only product labelled as “Coconut Cream” that I recommend. All the other brands labelled as coconut cream has a strong unnatural flavor from processing or from emulsifiers like guar gum added.

Natural Value

Natural Value coconut milks

In the past, besides Chaokoh and Mae Ploy, we’ve had pretty good luck with the Natural Value label (available locally at Rainbow Foods in SF and Farmer Joe’s in Oakland) for good, rich coconut milk that does not have any preservative or emulsifying additives. Natural Value is the only brand of organic coconut milk that we recommend because it does not contain guar gum: unfortunately most brands of organic coconut milk contain guar gum as an emulsifier. Guar gum ruins the natural flavor of the coconut milk, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, and does not work well in Thai cooking.

Coconut palms generally grow easily in poor, sandy soil along the coast and do not require much care as far as fertilizing or spraying to control diseases and pests. So most brands of natural-tasting coconut milk are pretty much organic but the plantations may not be “certified organic” for the milk to be labeled as “organic.” There are slightly different processing standards for organic as well.

The Natural Value brand that is not labeled “organic” is just as natural as the “organic” one – both only contain coconut extract and water and list no preservatives or emulsifiers. Natural Value wasn’t able to find a manufacturer in Thailand that produces “organic” coconut milk without guar gum added as emulsifier so their organic coconut milk now coms from the Philippines. Both of their products have  the added advantage of being in BPA-free cans. Both the organic and non-organic products are good, though we have found the organic to be not as rich as their non-organic product  (from Thailand) that can be thick with cream (but this could have changed with the coconut shortage).


Coconuts, too young for milking

Old Coconuts

Matured coconuts are used to make milk

Though prices have stabilized and may have begun to drop a little, it is unlikely that we will see the 69 cents we used to pay for a can of Chaokoh coconut milk a few years ago. The coconut shortage is a long-term problem as new groves have to be planted and time given for the new trees to reach maturity. The good news is the industry has been able to use biological means to control the pest problem instead of resorting to chemical pesticides.

Coconut Articles on Thai Food & Travel

Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 1

Ingredient Information and Use

Preparing and Using Coconuts

Coconuts in Thailand

Coconuts & Health

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, January 2013

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12 Responses to “Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 2”

  1. Jim says:

    I agree with michael. Most coconuts available here are not the milky type. You have to go to a specialty or ethnic food store to find the milky type coconut.

  2. Radha says:

    By the way thank you for answering my questions and for your website. It’s rare to find someone very detailed and concerned about quality food. Prior to emailing you I read many of the articles on sugar and coconut and tamarind and was surprised at how detailed they were and how you share my concerns. When I talk to others at the grocery store they don’t understand me.

  3. Radha says:

    And what do you think about frozen coconut milk?
    I assume no preservative is needed?

  4. Radha says:

    Is a good rule that if it has fragrant water and fragrant meat it’s good for milk? That it shouldn’t be one or the other but both should taste good? Often people discard the water which I don’t .

    I’m glad it’s not just me and some person in this world cares about coconut.

  5. Radha says:

    Coconut oil was made from boiled milk. Is anyone selling oil like that these days?

    • Michael Babcock says:

      The coconut oil we buy is called “virgin coconut oil” and is made by centrifuging the moist meat. You can also get oil that is made by pressing the dried meat (copra).

  6. Radha says:

    You say the eyes of the coconut should not be dark, why? Should they be evenly formed, large and round, not irregularly shaped? I thought dark chocolate eyes that are smooth not indented or pushed in is what you want?

    What do you think about frozen coconut gratings in terms of quality and taste? Can milk be made from them?

    • Michael Babcock says:

      Kasma says the shape of the eyes is unimportant. The dark color of the eyes indicates that there may be moisture seeping through the coconut and possible molding – the eyes should be the same color as the rest of the coconut.

      Frozen coconut gratings as sold in the U.S. are generally used in desserts and come from coconuts that are younger than those used to make coconut milk, so they are not really suitable for making good, creamy coconut milk.

      • Radha says:

        I have been through many coconuts in the USA and I don’t like most of them . The light tan ones have odd tasting water and meat that tastes dry, the medium tan pre scored ones also have off tasting water and flavorless meat, the dark ones have off tasting water and the meat will taste ok or flavorless. Once I had a medium tan coconut with awesome water that was rich creamy yet sweet and light. The meat was off tasting . It was a rare situation . Do you think if the water tastes good and the meat tastes good this is the ideal coconut for milk? Most of the time the water tastes off , meaning it is sourish or unpleasant. I feel hesitant to use a coconut with off tasting water even if the meat might be so so. Once in a rare while I get a coconut with sweet fragrant meat. But this Is rare and I don’t know how to identify a coconut that for sure will have sweet meat , do you?

        • Radha says:

          Most of the coconuts are flavorless or not that sweet and fragrant. Why and have you experienced this too?

          • Michael Babcock says:

            Yes, we have. The coconuts we buy at the local markets in the San Francisco Bay Area are not very good. It could have to do with how they are shipped, how much time they are in transit and how they are stored. It could also be that they are not exporting their best coconuts because they know they will not travel well.

        • Michael Babcock says:

          The coconuts available in the U.S. are really meant for desserts, not for making milk. In the U.S. it’s very hard to find (let alone identify) a coconut that will for sure have sweet meat. Even in Thailand coconuts can vary widely in freshness and taste from market to market.

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