Coconut milk and coconut cream are ingredients in many Southeast Asian dishes — from marinades to stews to desserts. Where does coconut milk and cream come from? Coconut milk and cream are extracted from mature coconut meat. The meat is ground or grated then squeezed to extract the milk or cream. There is a special machine for grating mature coconut meat in most Asian markets but in places where no such service is available, cooks buy the coconut whole, split the husk at home and grind the meat in the blender. I’ve seen it done in an Australian kitchen in an episode of Food Safari.
That’s grated coconut meat in the photo above. Squeeze it in batches and you get the coconut cream. Is there a difference between the milk and the cream? Yes, there is. Coconut cream refers to the first extraction while coconut milk refers to the second and third extractions.
For the first extraction, take a handful of grated coconut and squeeze directly over a bowl. Repeat until all the of grated coconut has been squeezed. Set the squeezed grated coconut aside for the second and third extractions. Then, strain the coconut cream, pressing the remaining grated coconut against the strainer.
There are cooks who prefer to place the grated coconut in a square piece of muslin and squeeze it from there. It assures that no pieces of coconut fall into the cream so that there is no need to strain afterward.
For the second extraction, add a cup of warm water to the grated coconut. Squeeze gently to rehydrate and coax any remaining cream. Then, repeat the procedure above.
For the third extraction, add another cup of warm water and repeat.
Needless to say, the first extraction is the richest while the third is the thinnest. They have specific uses in Southeast Asian cooking.
If you want to cook something that requires coconut milk or cream and freshly grated coconut is unavailable, there are several brands of canned coconut milk and cream in the Oriental section of most supermarkets. Check the ingredients to make sure that no additives have been added. Then, double check the label. Does it say coconut cream or coconut milk? It is always safer to get “coconut cream” which can be diluted with water if the recipe calls for coconut milk.