Coconut milk in a can doesn't get a great rap from many authorities on Asian food, but making coconut milk is enough of a chore that the canned version is commonplace in kitchens inside Asia and out. The choice of can counts for a lot, not least when you're putting the milk on the stove. While some cooks pick particular brands for the clarity and finish they give desserts, they may vary their brand for cooking. In South East Asian Food, Rosemary Brissenden says cans should be scrutinised to ensure they contain no caseinates, preservatives, or emulsifying agents. Thai cooks rely on the oil that comes out of coconut milk reduced in the pan to fry pastes (you'll see this separation described as the "cracking" or "breaking" of the coconut milk), and milks that have been artificially thickened in the canning process will often yield little to no oil. "As a final test," writes Brissenden, "shake the can - you should clearly hear liquid slopping around inside."
Coconut and chia seed puddings
Serves 4 as a snack
Stir 400ml coconut milk, 30gm chia seeds and 1 tbsp coconut sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until the mixture starts to thicken and chia seeds begin to turn translucent (4-6 minutes). Pour into glasses and refrigerate until chilled (at least 4 hours or overnight). Serve topped with sliced fresh fruit such as ripe pear and chopped nuts such as natural almonds along with shaved coconut.
Split pea, silverbeet, ginger and coconut soup
Heat 20gm ghee in a saucepan over medium-high heat, add 1 finely chopped onion and stir until translucent (4-6 minutes). Add 20gm grated ginger, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 tsp garam masala, ½ tsp each coarsely crushed fennel seeds and ground cumin, and ¼ tsp ground chilli, and stir until fragrant (1-1½ minutes). Add 80gm rinsed dried yellow split peas and 1 diced ripe tomato, stir to combine, then add 600ml chicken stock and 600ml coconut milk, simmer until split peas are just tender, adding 500gm blanched, chopped spinach (fresh or frozen) during the last 10 minutes of cooking (25-30 minutes). Season to taste and serve hot with a dollop of yoghurt and extra chilli.
Prawns in red curry sauce with rice noodles
Heat 1 tbsp grapeseed oil in a wok over high heat, add 70gm red curry paste and stir until fragrant (1-1½ minutes), then add 4 torn kaffir lime leaves, 1 tbsp crushed light palm sugar, and stir to combine. Add 400ml coconut milk and 24 peeled uncooked prawns, and simmer, turning prawns occasionally, until cooked (2-3 minutes). Season to taste with lime juice, fish sauce and extra palm sugar, and keep warm. Meanwhile, steam 450gm thickly cut fresh rice noodles (available from Asian supermarkets), until softened (1-2 minutes), and serve topped with prawns in red curry sauce and scattered with coriander, julienned kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced red shallots and lime wedges.
Vermicelli and coconut-poached chicken salad
Break up 240gm dried rice vermicelli and soak in a bowl of boiling water, covered, until tender (8-10 minutes). Drain, rinse under cold running water, and drain again. Bring 400ml coconut milk to the simmer in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 2 skinless chicken breasts, each cut diagonally into thirds, and simmer, turning occasionally, until cooked through (7-9 minutes). Set aside in cooking liquid. Meanwhile, finely pound 3 small red chillies and 1 garlic clove with a mortar and pestle, then stir in 2 tbsp fish sauce, juice of 3 limes and 1 heaped tsp caster sugar. Place vermicelli in a large bowl, add dressing and 1 cup each torn mint and coriander, ½ cup torn Thai basil and 2 thinly sliced red shallots. Remove chicken from coconut milk with a slotted spoon, shred the meat into the bowl, toss to combine well and serve scattered with fried shallots and drizzled with reserved cooking milk.
- Our preferred brand of coconut milk is TCC, which is free of thickeners, but if you find yourself stuck with a canned milk that won't crack when you want to fry a spice paste, add a little vegetable oil to the pan to make up for it.
- Coconut milk spoils quickly once opened so refrigerate any leftovers for a day or two at most, or freeze them in ice-cube trays.