Coconut milk has been used in Thai cuisine for thousands of years, even though it only appeared about 25 years ago on UK supermarket shelves, and then it wasn’t exactly in abundance or of a particularly high quality. Now of course, you can stroll into any supermarket conglomerate and find several different brands – puzzled by which one to use? If you speak to Jum, founder of Mae Jum, she will tell you that her family have used coconut milk for generations in home cooking and that it is a vital ingredient of authentic Thai dishes.
What is coconut milk?
Many think that coconut milk is the liquid that is inside the coconut itself, but this clear mild tasting liquid is just one of the elements found in fresh coconut milk. Just the white flesh is used to make coconut milk and coconut cream found in commercial products. In the same way as Olive Oil, coconut milk comes from the pressing of the white fleshy part of the seed (coconut is not a nut, but the seed of a fruit), which has been grated and soaked in hot water.
The first pressing is thick and used for deserts, whilst subsequent pressings produce coconut milk ideal for curries. The type and quality of the coconut milk found in supermarket depend on where in this process the coconut milk was taken, just as with extra virgin olive oil, and normal olive oil. No self-respecting Thai national would be without freshly pressed coconut milk it their everyday dishes, such as Thai Green Curry. However, there is another myth that Jum would like to dispel – Thais almost never cook with coconut oil, usually vegetable oil, contrary to many people’s beliefs! Despite various studies, cooking with coconut oil isn't something traditionally done. Instead, the Thai dishes take advantage of the coconut oil already in the milk by boiling some of the coconut milk, splitting away some of the oil, while blending with the Thai curry paste, helping to infuse the full flavour of the herbs and spices. Jum says that the quality of coconut milk varies considerably from brand to brand and that this really makes a difference when it comes to flavour, so the creaminess and the amount of retained coconut oil makes a huge difference.
Furthermore, it is so important to read the ingredients label – if a can or carton lists a multitude of contents, it is likely that emulsifiers will have been used which will, in fact, prevent the oil from separating during the cooking process, which really is what you need for authenticity. When preparing your recipe, you need to see that delightful ‘glossiness’ during cooking, which is evident on the surface of your meal, and is the natural oil from the coconut showing its presence. If you have over separated the oil, and are still worried, you can scoop off a little from the top, so as not to lose the vibrancy of the finished dish. Don’t be fooled by cans that say ‘light’ or ‘lite’, which is just another ploy by manufacturers to make you believe that the contents are healthier, lower in calories, less fat etc. The difference is minimal to that of full coconut milk, and you certainly won’t end up with a curry that tastes remotely of traditional Thai cuisine.
So is coconut milk good for you?
If you want your spice blends to truly appeal to all palates and mix beautifully with your coconut milk and other ingredients, the milk has to be the real deal, not thin and watery, nor lacking in flavour. The last thing you need to see are globules of oil that stand out when you present your delicious dish, which is a distinctive trait of coconut milk that does have a decent percentage of the actual coconut meat extract. There have been reports that coconut milk or coconut oil are not all that they should be, but as long as you have a balanced diet overall, coconut milk will purely enrich it. You are probably not going to use coconut milk more than a couple of times a week in your cooking, so there is no need to worry about harming your weight or your body - but do use the best quality products so you can really enjoy the experience. Most of Jum's recipes do not add any additional oil when cooking with coconut milk, there is no need.
What does my body get from it?
When you see coconuts growing in their natural environment; when you remove the green husk and crack open the coconut to see it's snowy white flesh, fresh clear coconut water, and its' mild fragrance, you cannot for a moment imagine that mother nature wishes you any harm. That is why coconuts are rich in vitamins such as Vitamin B1, B3, B5, B6, C and E and minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, phosphorous and selenium. If you are lactose intolerant, coconut milk is the perfect answer for you. It is also ‘the vegans choice’ when making any dishes or drinks, such as smoothies.
Thais love our coconuts, you will too.