Monday, 5 July 2010

Cooking: Thai coconut milk chronicles

This recipe was taken from my recent cookery class at Sailors Thai, the famous Sydney restaurant originally opened by David Thompson. The recipes and techniques are very similar to those found in the books Thai Food and Thai Street Food.

Obtaining the ingredients for this recipe is going to be easier if you live close to a Thai supermarket. I can strongly recommend both Mae Cheng and Thai Pathong on Campbell St in Sydney. Other recipes in this mini-series:
- Thai Beef Salad

- Thai Fish Salad
- Thai Green Curry Paste

- Thai Green Curry

When I went to David Thompson's book launch of Thai Street Food there was a question from the audience that went something like the below:
Q: What should I do if I don't want to make my own coconut milk?
A: Don't make a Thai curry. Cook something else instead.
Q: Are there any short cuts that can be used? Any tins you'd recommend?
A: No.

It exemplifies both David Thompson's commitment and why he is so respected; but also what makes his cook books unapproachable (to me at least).

When I discovered we were cooking a curry during my cookery lesson I was keen to ask about a more pragmatic approach to coconut milk.

I asked one of the managers at Sailors Thai and they suggested to me that a half way house was to use a bag of frozen shredded coconut (available at Mae Cheng in Sydney) and to press that, rather than attempting to grate a fresh coconut.

I've tried this approach twice. The first time it was an absolute disaster and I ended up with a watery mess. My second attempt was more successful, although I still didn't obtain cream that was rich as we had at the restaurant.

500g shredded coconut (thawed)
Luke warm water

1.  Remove the shredded coconut from it's packet, place in a bowl and defrost overnight in the fridge.

2.  Approximately an hour before you want to start making the coconut cream take the shredded coconut out of the fridge and get it up to room temperature.

3.  Once the coconut is at room temperature add 3/4 cups of lukewarm water. Use a hand blender to blitz the coconut and water together. If you don't have a hand blender you can work the coconut by hand.

4.  Pass the coconut through muslin / a clean tea towel into a separate container. This is your first press coconut cream. Leave it to settle, the cream should rise to the top.

5.  Return the shredded coconut to the bowl, add another 3/4 cups of lukewarm water and repeat the blitzing / kneading process and then pass the coconut mix through the muslin into a separate bowl. This is your second press which will be a lot thinner than the coconut cream obtained from the first press.

Two factors made my second attempt 'relatively' more successful than the first. Number one was taking the shredded coconut out of the fridge to get it up to room temperature before I needed it and second using warmer water. On my first attempt I think both were too cold.

Is it worth the effort? I have to say I'm not convinced. It is possible to buy some pretty decent coconut cream that doesn't contain any preservatives or stabilisers. If you are using the coconut cream in a curry I think it's perfectly acceptable to buy a tin. If you are hoping to make sweetened coconut cream for a desert then it might be worth the effort of perfecting your technique to make fresh.


  1. I'm not an expert obviously, but I would think there's some decent coconut cream in a can too? Thanks for the tips though, maybe I'll try making it at home too :)

  2. I think the argument against is that cans aren't great quality and contain stabilisers or preservatives. But I'm not convinced...

  3. Sounds like a lot of effort. I'd say the average Joe would just open a tin. I found a recipe I want to try that calls for freshly grated coconut and can only think to grab the coconut grater I saw at the Fiji Mkt. If I buy it maybe I can bag up the coconut & sell it to the Inner West like they do at markets in Thailand and India!

  4. After my horrendous ordeal with homemade udon, I am very hesitant in making certain things from scratch. Coconut milk is one of them :(

  5. Good on you for giving it a go Richard, but I agree with the others... perfectly happy with a can and a can opener for coconut cream, just gotta find a good brand!

  6. Freshly grated coconut can be sourced from Flemington markets in Homebush on Saturdays. The seller is on the railway side wall inside the main builing where the fijian stalls are.