Coconut milk has a reliable transformative power, turning humble ingredients into something exotic, enticing and a little festive. In a short amount of time, a couple of aubergines become aubergine curry, for example. Discovering a tin of coconut milk in the cupboard opens up possibilities.
But if you are not a regular user of the stuff, you may be alarmed to find that it’s one of a bewildering array of related by-products, including coconut water, coconut oil, coconut cream, creamed coconut (which comes in a block) and cream of coconut. Are any of these ingredients similar or interchangeable? Sort of. Coconut milk and coconut cream are both made from squeezing the grated flesh of the fruit, with coconut cream being the richer version from the first pressing. If you have a fresh coconut, it is possible to do this yourself.
While most recipes specify either coconut milk or cream, one can normally stand in for the other: you can dilute coconut cream with water to make milk, or reduce coconut milk to get cream. At a pinch, you can fashion coconut milk by dissolving creamed coconut in hot water at a ratio of one to four parts; in an emergency you can whiz water with desiccated coconut flakes and squeeze out a rough equivalent of tinned coconut milk through a muslin. Cream of coconut, on the other hand, is a heavily sweetened product unsuitable for anything but cocktails.
But we are not here to make trouble for ourselves – cooking with coconut milk is meant to be easy. The next time you see some in the shops, stock up. In the meantime, here are 17 different uses for a single 400g tin.
As versatile as coconut milk is, recipes generally break down into three categories: curries, puddings and other. The curries range from easy to really quite involved, but perhaps none is easier than Rukmini Iyer’s lime and coconut dal. As well as coconut milk, the recipe calls for a small amount of fresh coconut chunks, but you can normally find these already cut up at the supermarket. Otherwise it is stunningly simple: everything – red lentils, onion, garlic, spices – is tipped into a roasting tin and baked for 45 minutes.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s baked chicken curry also spends a quiet hour in the oven on its own, once you have toasted the spices, browned the chicken and stirred everything into place. Nigel Slater’s mussels with tamarind and coconut milk is, by contrast, quick to prepare. It’s also flexible: according to Slater, clams, fish or prawns will work just as well.
Selina Periampillai’s Seychellois cari koko with prawns is based on a spice blend called massalé, which includes coriander, cumin, peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. If that sounds a bit fussy, try this turmeric, ginger and coconut fish curry using cod and frozen peas.
Coconut milk is not a dairy product and although it can split like one when heated, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that you have done anything wrong. In fact, in some dishes, it is supposed to split – as with Felicity Cloake’s perfect Thai green curry, where the curry paste cooks in the separated coconut oil. Her recipe actually calls for coconut cream instead of milk, so if you think that disqualifies it from this list, here’s another: Meera Sodha’s vegan version, using sweet potato, aubergine and broccoli.
If you are keen to build up your repertoire of breakfast curries, try Ravinder Bhogal’s crispy fried eggs with coconut curry.
In desserts, coconut milk sometimes stands in for some dairy product or other – you can, for example, use it to make vegan whipped cream. But in this coconut panna cotta it is only an addition, combined with double cream, sugar and gelatine, and served with mango, lime and crushed ginger biscuits. It is quick to make, but needs to set over several hours, preferably overnight.
Benjamina Ebuehi’s grapefruit and coconut cheesecake is also a very dairy affair, containing as it does butter, double cream and cream cheese, along with the coconut milk, while Dan Lepard’s coconut milk layer cake is supplemented with white rum.
You can whip up an instant dressing for cold noodle salads – or anything else you fancy – by mixing coconut milk with lime juice, oil, fish sauce, brown sugar and finely grated shallot. Alternatively, Jack Monroe turns out an ingenious soda bread using just four ingredients: coconut milk, flour, lemon juice and bicarbonate of soda. Yotam Ottolenghi puts coconut milk on his Irish (steel-cut) oat porridge, along with mango, banana and maple syrup.
Finally, this reader recipe offers up vegan hot chocolate made from coconut milk and dark chocolate infused with cardamom and cinnamon. It’s almost preposterously rich – dainty cups are recommended – but, as the nights draw in, you might find yourself with a hankering for that sort of thing.