Everyone assumes that when a recipe calls for coconut milk that we all still know how to make it from scratch. Or take it out of a can. Well, just in case there are some dummies out there who, like me, have never made fresh coconut milk or gata for myself, here are the basics. I am putting this now as I am about to post some yummy recipes that need freshly made coconut milk.
There are two types of fresh coconut milk. Thick or first pressed milk. And thin or second pressed milk. To make “extra virgin coconut milk” or EVCO as I now call it, you have to buy a mature coconut (generally those that are just brown husk outside), and have the dude man at the market grate it. If your home still has one of those neat grating contraptions, then grate it yourself. For every grated coconut, add one cup of lukewarm water (not hot) and start squeezing to extract the milk. Keep going until the liquid is nice and thick. Strain through a fine sieve and if you are particular about removing all coconut bits and solids, pass through a cheesecloth. The bits and solids can alter the texture of your cooked dish. I happen to think they are fine but others might want really smooth coconut milk. This first pressing yields a nice milk that is NOWHERE near as thick and viscous as canned milk. Generally, you can thicken it further by boiling it down. The squeezing is rather cathartic, a good replacement for punching a dummy. You can squeeze the grated coconut from several nuts at the same time. Set aside the EVCO.
From the SAME grated coconut, add 1.5-2.0 cups of lukewarm water and start squeezing again until you have extracted the remaining milk. This process yields a thinner milk that is typically used at the beginning of the cooking process for recipes with coconut milk or gata. The EVCO is added to the dish at a later stage. Make your coconut milk and use it soon after you squeeze it. While I almost always encourage people to use the fresh alternative, this is not possible in areas where you don’t have geriatric coconuts readily available (think Juneau, Alaska or Paris, France for example) and you must resort to canned alternatives. Some canned alternatives are pretty good, but they do tend to be thicker than fresh coconut milk and you just have to adjust your recipes. I find canned coconut milk an excellent way to shortcut a decent shrimp or chicken curry recipe. At least now you know how to do it from scratch if you have to.