Flaked or shredded coconut meat and desiccated coconut are rarely used except for sweets and garnishes. But coconut milk (pulped flesh, not juice) is one of the most important ingredients. It is used in curries, meat, vegetable and seafood dishes as well as for desserts and sweets. The sweetness in coconut milk gives the blend of nutty and sweet flavors. In Thailand it is possible to get fresh coconut milk but it also comes in tins, as a dried powder and in a creamed form. Fresh coconut milk is made from the coconut flesh. The flesh is grated or chopped by putting it into an electirc blender. Coconut milk is one kind of fatty substance which is derived from the process of removing the husk and the shell from matured coconut.
To make 750ml (3 cups, 24 fl oz) of coconut milk you need 500g (1 lb 2 oz) of grated coconut, then add 500ml (2 cups, 16 fl oz) of warm water to the grated coconut. This then needs to be squeezed by hand for about 10 minutes or longer to obtain the milk. It is then put through muslin or a strainer. It needs to be squeezed hard to make sure that the thick coconut milk (also called coconut cream) is obtained. It is then left for 10 minutes and the thick coconut milk and think coconut milk will separate out.
Tinned coconut milk needs to be shaken before using. To separate the thick and thin coconut milk the tin can be forozen for 10 minutes. The easy way out (and sometimes the cheapest) is to buy ready-made, canned coconut milk at major supermarkets. Instant coconut milk powder is now available and is a handy substitute.
Coconut milk can be divided into two categores suitable for different kinds of cooking as follows.
Coconut Milk from Unskinned Grated Coconut (Coconut Milk for Curry Making) : The coconut milk used for making curry or other Thai main dishes is usually extracted from grated coconut from which the dark brown skin has not been removed. The milk obtained from this unskinned kind of grated coconut is creamy in color, rather than milk white. This kind of coconut milk is therefore not suitable for dishes that require a whitish appearance and is mainly used in making curry. Ingredient making up curry paste gives color to the curry such that the cremy color characteristic of this type of coconut milk will not affect the dishes.
Coconut Milk from White Grated Coconut (Skinned Coconut) : Coconut milk is also an essential ingredient contained in most Thai desserts. Therefore, the coconut milk used must be very white to give a more appealing color to the dessert. The dark brown skin of the coconut must be removed before grating, such that the grated coconut will yield a pure white and delectable looking milk after being squeezed. However, skinned coconut milk is equally creamy and aromatic as milk from unskinned coconut.