Growing up in a Thai household of restaurant owners, I thought nothing of coconut milk. We were always flush, either from making it ourselves or from buying the high-quality imported stuff from a local Thai grocer. It wasn’t until I moved away from home that I realized bad coconut milk actually existed and that good coconut milk is often hard to come by. I didn’t live near an Asian market, but my local supermarket carried one brand of canned coconut milk. Upon opening it, I encountered a thin, gray liquid, not the snow-white, velvet-textured milk I was familiar with. How can I convey the disappointment? It was like ordering a glass of fresh orange juice and being served Hi-C.
Clearly, if I wanted quality coconut milk, I had to go straight to the source. Luckily, I found that fresh coconuts were available at most stores. I didn’t have a coconut grater, which is as ubiquitous in Southeast Asian kitchens as the can opener is in American ones, but a vegetable peeler and blender proved to be admirable stand-ins. I also didn’t have a machete, which is what my mom, grandmas, and aunts all used to crack open coconuts. I discovered that a hammer was just as—if not more—effective.
While squeezing the luscious, creamy fat out of that first coconut, its sweet aroma enveloped me, and I caught myself smiling from ear to ear in between deep inhalations. That smell still gets me every time.
These days, the selection of canned coconut milk at Western supermarkets has vastly improved, so why on earth should you expend the energy extracting your own? I’ll tell you why: Because there are still plenty of terrible options on those shelves, and even many of the better ones contain thickeners, emulsifiers, and other additives that affect the texture, making the coconut milk gloppy or gritty. On top of that, the canning process diminishes the aroma and flavor, which is really what coconut milk is all about.
In recipes where coconut isn’t the main attraction, quality canned coconut milk works just fine, but it’s worthwhile to make your own for soups, desserts, and drinks that showcase the freshness and delicate flavor of this tropical nut. The difference is remarkable. It’s evident in a chilled corn and coconut milk soup that I love to make on steamy summer days. In this soup, some canned coconut milks would be too thin and watery, some would be too thick, and some might separate too easily. But homemade coconut milk results in a velvety, smooth, and full-bodied soup with pure, vibrant coconut flavor that perfectly complements the sweet corn of late summer. One taste, and I guarantee you’ll be hooked. So go ahead: Roll up your sleeves, get out the tools, and get cracking.