Coconut Milk – Gkati
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Coconut milk is not the juice found inside a coconut, but the diluted cream pressed out from the thick, white flesh of a well-matured coconut.
To make coconut milk, finely grated coconut meat is steeped in hot water until it is cool enough to handle. It is then squeezed until dry; the white fluid is strained to remove all the pulp (Preparing a Coconut for Pressing Milk). When allowed to sit for a while, the coconut cream (hua gkati) rises to the top. Commercially, coconut cream is obtained by pressing grated coconut flesh by itself without water, using a specialized, heavy piece of machinery.
More hot water is added to the pulp and the process is repeated to yield a lighter fluid, or coconut milk (nahm gkati). Frequently, a third pressing is done to obtain a light coconut milk (hahng gkati), which is used for stewing meats or for thinning coconut milk to make a coconut soup or a light curry. An average mature coconut yields about one cup of coconut cream and one to two cups of coconut milk depending on how light a milk is desired.
For most working American families with limited time to cook, making fresh coconut milk from scratch from a whole coconut is too laborious a process, especially when it can be easily substituted with canned or bottled unsweetened coconut milk.
Not all brands of canned coconut milk are good. Some actually can be downright foul-tasting. So try a number of different brands to find the one most to your liking. Good coconut milk has a clean, white color and tastes rich, creamy and mildly sweet with the essence of coconut. It should also have a complexity and depth of flavor that keeps you intrigued and not leave an unpleasant aftertaste. As is true with other kinds of natural cream that has not been artificially homogenized, natural coconut cream will rise to the top and separate from the heavier water component.
Good brands of coconut milk, therefore, will have the thicker cream floating on top of the can while the milk on the bottom will be much more watery. The cream usually separates to the top more readily in cool weather, or when refrigerated. Brands with milk that looks homogenized tend to have an artificial taste because of additives introduced to make the cream homogenize, or excess processing which changes the nature of the cream. My two preferred brands are Chao Koh in 14 oz. cans and Mae Ploy in 19 oz. cans. The latter is the richest and creamiest of brands I have tried; Chao Koh, while lighter, has a delicate, sweet natural flavor. Beware of look-alike cans of inferior brands. Both are carried by most Southeast Asian markets.
For recipes requiring coconut cream, do not shake the can before opening; spoon out the thick cream on top. On hot days, refrigerate the can so that the cream will harden and can be easily separated from the lighter milk.
I do not recommend canned "light coconut milk" – it has little flavor, if any at all. Usually, some kind of flour has been added to make it look thicker and whiter than it really is, although this is not made known in the listing of ingredients. Better results can be obtained by thinning a good-quality, creamy coconut milk with water or cooking liquids to the lightness desired. If you are concerned about the saturated fat content in coconut milk, know that this saturated fat has been shown in many independent studies to be a good saturated fat, easily metabolized to give your body quick energy. Contrary to popular myth, it does not transform into bad cholesterol to clog up arteries. In fact, cultures around the world that depend on coconut as their main source of fat have been found to be free of heart disease. The principle fatty acid in coconut milk is lauric acid, which is the same fat found in abundance in mother's milk and is known to promote normal brain development and contribute to healthy bones. It also has important anti-carcinogenic and anti-pathogenic properties and is less likely to cause weight gain than polyunsaturated oils.
The potent anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-microbial effects of coconut oil have implicated it in the treatment of both AIDS and candida. Whatever bad things you may have heard or read about coconut milk have not stood up to scrutiny by unbiased food scientists; however, the goodness of coconut milk has not been given equal press because of intensive lobbying against it by the powerful vegetable oil industry. Southeast Asians, meanwhile, have been staying healthy for generations with coconut an integral part of their diet (The Truth about Coconut Oil).
Coconut milk should be refrigerated once the can is opened. It keeps for a couple of days to a week I do not recommend freezing coconut milk as this increases the likelihood of curdling when it is next used in cooking – unless you are just warming it through without boiling. Be careful not to buy sweetened coconut milk for Thai cooking. As for powdered coconut milk or the waxy, condensed blocks requiring dilution with water, I do not recommend them, unless you are going backpacking and just can't do without your Thai curry!
Coconut milk is the base of most Thai curries. Contrary to western ideas of working with cream, to make the curry sauce, coconut cream is first reduced over fairly high heat to break down the cream and allow the oil to separate. The curry paste is then added and fried in the coconut oil until all the herb and spice flavors are released and blended before the rest of the coconut milk is added to make the sauce. Finished Thai curries will have a thin layer of oil floating on top of the sauce. This oil picks up the color of the curries – bright red for red curry, glistening green for green curry, and so on – giving them a lovely appearance rather than a dull, whitish sameness. The color serves as a reminder of their true nature – spicy hot from red and green chillies and not creamy and bland.
You might enjoy learning how to Cook Thai food from Kasma in a Thai cooking class.