Cooking Thai Curry with Coconut Milk

May 01, 2015 13 Comments

The most common problem that seems to crop in making Thai curries is this : "My Thai curry is too watery...". Well a few minutes reading this and I can promise you that will never happen to you! Coconut milk plays a big part in South-East Asian cooking but much less so in the UK and many other countries. A resulting problem with this is a lack of knowledge when it comes to choosing brands of canned Coconut milk; often the assumption is that one can of Coconut milk is much the same as another can of Coconut milk. Nothing could be further from the truth and to demonstrate this I went on a shopping trip to Tesco and Sainsbury and bought the following brands, I then checked to see how much coconut extract each can contained as you can see in the photo below.

Coconut milk comparison between brands for Thai curry

Now if you're making a Thai green curry for example, the Coconut milk will form a very large part of the dish. It's hardly surprising that the biggest problem people encounter when making a Thai green curry is that it turned out to be watery. That would certainly be the case with at least four of the brands in the picture. The ideal percentage of Coconut extract should be around 40%. That also rules out the "light" varieties that you see on supermarket shelves, great marketing ploy though, reduce the amount of Coconut extract and increase the amount of water and charge more for it!

Other brands you may encounter are Blue Dragon and Amoy at around 50-60 % Coconut extract. Be careful as they both produce “light” versions as well.

Another indicator of how good a particular can of Coconut milk is how few ingredients it lists on the can. The best ones will probably just read like "Coconut milk,Water,Citric Aid (antioxidant), some of the others will read like a shopping list from "Breaking Bad." Simple fact is that quality coconut milk doesn't need all the added emulsifiers,stabilisers and bulking agents that are added to the lesser quality milks.Additives like guar gum can have a disastrous effect on a Thai curry as the sauce reduces.

If you want to know which brand I prefer I would have to say none of the above. Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly make a good curry with any of the above brands that contain 40% or more Coconut extract. In fact for reasons that I will now try to explain you might even prefer a curry made with those brands rather than my preferred choice. And if all you want to do is make a good curry you now know enough about Coconut milk to go back to the recipe and start cooking ! Bear in mind though that if you've purchased a jar of something from the supermarket masquerading as a Thai curry paste, then there are limits to what even the best coconut milk can achieve.

For anyone who has stayed with me Chaokoh or Aroy-D are my preferred brands of Coconut milk and in Thailand I’m certainly not alone in this as these are easily the most popular brands.

Chaokoh coconut milkAroy D coconut milk

 

So far I have only talked about the percentage of Coconut extract in these cans but there is more, much more to it than that. Coconut milk comes in different grades and the most prized grade is the first squeezed extraction of the Coconut meat. This is a thick creamy substance, remaining extractions are much thinner and less valued. In superior brands of Coconut milk the thicker creamier part of it will rise to the top of the can and if you don't shake the can you can literally scoop it off as in the picture below. What's left behind will be almost clear water.

Coconut milk in pan

In Thailand when we are not making our own pastes we often buy them as fresh pastes in the market, as in the picture below.

 Fresh Thai curry paste in market

These pastes need to be cooked and we would do this by cooking the thick part of the Coconut milk (from now I'll call it Coconut cream and don't confuse that with the packets of Creamed Coconut you see on supermarket shelves) in a pan until the Coconut fat separates from the cream. For a Thai cook that separation is what they are seeking, the paste will now be added and cooked through to form the base of the curry. If we are able to do it successfully we need to use a brand of Coconut milk that contains no emulsifiers to hold it together because these would prevent the separation. That is one of the reasons  why Chakoh & Aroy-D Coconut milk is popular in Thailand, it contains only Coconut extract and water with citric acid as a preservative. But what us Thais also know is that if you add thickeners and emulsifiers and stabilisers to a thinner coconut milk it can look exactly like the one in the picture above. But because of those emulsifiers it won’t separate cleanly in the way we require. You're also not going to get the richness of the top-quality Coconut as you do with a brand like Chakoh or Aroy-D.

Now having explained all that I have to tell you that at least as far as the separation part of Coconut milk is concerned its not actually something you require if you're cooking with one of my curry pastes. I've already cooked them for you and the aroma of the fresh herbs is contained in the oil contents of the jar or pouch and will be released as you cook the paste. If you follow my recipe for the Thai green curry you will see that rather than separate the Coconut as above I actually pour the whole can in (or with an unfamiliar brand just start with half a can) , and that once again is because the paste has already been cooked. The reason why I still continue to use Chakoh Coconut milk even if I don't need it’s separation qualities is simply because it is a far superior product. I have also yet to meet anyone that I recommended it to, and who tried it ,who would disagree with that comment. In fact most of them now go out of their way to get it ! You can always find it in places like Chinatown in London and South-East Asian grocery stores. It's also available on Amazon and the prices including shipping for 6 or more cans are competitive with supermarkets.(UK update. Morrisons now stock Chakoh in their Far Eastern section with the noodles.Somewhat confusingly many of their stores also have a "World Food or Asian section" where they have less suitable brands so head for the noodles!) Also Sainsbury's own brand is not bad at all, but I'm always cautious about own brands as they sometimes switch suppliers as Waitrose did a while back with disastrous results. Blue Dragon is one brand that I find gives acceptable results, it does have a stabliser added but doesn't seem to break down quite as much as guar gum which is used in many coconut milks.)

Now remember I said you can still make a very good Thai green Curry with a brand that contains at least 40% Coconut extract and you might even prefer it to a brand like Chakoh. This is the reason; the picture on the left is whether Curry has been cooked with Chakoh and separated, just the way we Thais like it ! The curry on the right has been cooked with the Coconut milk that contains emulsifiers which is why we're seeing little globules of oil.

Coconut milk separation in Thai curry

Quite often in Thai restaurants they will use a brand of coconut milk that separates and then skim off the oil. Maybe that is to the Western taste, we are Thai and we like to please ! This is all a matter of personal taste, you can do it that way too. Just remember that if you cook a Thai green curry and the oil separates you haven't ruined the dish, you have actually cooked it the way it is supposed to be.

Thai Green Curry Paste Bangkok Style







13 Responses

Kusumanand
Kusumanand

July 13, 2018

I tried the recipe with green Thai curry paste & thick pressed coconut milk 200 gm.It came out very well.I was afraid of d curdling of coconut milk .Thank God it didn’t happen.

Riyaz
Riyaz

July 04, 2018

Nice information

Erica Diana Cuevas
Erica Diana Cuevas

May 07, 2018

agree with post. the aroy D is superior to many others I have tried. so rich and creamy! will be trying the chakoah next

Merle.lennox
Merle.lennox

April 19, 2017

I have just received my pasted today! Can’t wait to try ! Thanks for the tips on the coconut milk! Will search for Chakoh!

Nitsa
Nitsa

February 19, 2017

Re: Coconut cream.

One reason I tend not to talk about coconut cream is that there is often confusion about the term. Coconut cream, creamed coconut, cream of coconut, these can be very different products used for everything from Pina Colada to coconut desserts.Aside from that it is rare to find coconut cream without added stabilsers etc. In regard to preferring a thicker curry, it’s worth pointing that in Thailand where you are at present, the tendency is towards a much thinner curry compared to how they are served in the West. if I want my curry to be especially thick then I find the separated out cream from a good brand of coconut milk to be sufficient.As far as coconut cream separating in a slow cooker you would have to experiment; different brands = different results.

gordon
gordon

February 17, 2017

I am in Chiang Mai and very soon to be returning to SW France via Phuket. Before I leave I want to buy some soft packets of local coconut milk .
Before I often used coconut cream which is obviously thicker. I like the thickness in Indian curries. You do not refer to to the use of the cream instead of the milk and I (and I guess others) would welcome your comments. One final query if the cream is used in a slow cooker like the milk would it be fine to cook for, say 2.5 hours without curdling and if longer cooking to add 30m before the end ?
Much obliged and a super site

Nitsa Raymond
Nitsa Raymond

January 24, 2017

RE: Grace Coconut Milk (see post below)

Hi Kyo,

Thanks for the input. My problem with this brand would be that there are too many reviews on Amazon like the those below from people who have purchased it once and loved it, purchased it a second time and found it absolutely awful. The reviews below are from the same customer. And there are quite a few similar reviews.

Review #1 March ‘14
“I’ve tried a multitude of variants and this is the best by far; 75% coconut & 25% water – that’s it, nothing else. "

Review #2 April ‘15
“This coconut milk used to be think and creamy and we great as a yoghurt substitute by letting it solidify in the fridge overnight. Now it’s like watery emulsion paint and will not solidify in the fridge. Grace have clearly added chemicals but have chosen not to put it on the packaging. Won’t be buying this again. Disgusted customer."

As I said in the blog post, I’m always cautious about recommending supermarket own brands because what is in the can one month can be totally different the next month. The label will be the same but the quality has taken a nosedive. Grace is a company that primarily specialises in products from the Caribbean. They are not a Thai company and their products are not sold there. Like the supermarkets or some other brands they buy up coconut milk and have their own label put on it. This can make for a very inconsistent product.

One of the reasons why I recommend Chakoh & Aroy-D Coconut milk (incidentally, also available on Amazon) is that they are by far the most popular brands in Thailand and really compete for market share. In such a huge market where the consumers are extremely knowledgeable when it comes to coconut milk, this means that the quality of the product has to be kept consistent.

I’ve no doubt that when it’s good it’s very good as you have found, however it seems you have to take a chance on whether future purchases will be the same, a problem that exists with many brands that don’t process their own coconut milk.
Hope you enjoy the curry pastes even if we may think differently on this point!

Kyo
Kyo

January 23, 2017

HI – I love Thai food and for me, the best coconut milk is a brand called Grace, sold on Amazon UK. The only ingredients are 75% coconut extract and 25% water – I buy the 1 litre, pack of 12. It has a thick consistency with no separation so it oozes out of the packet. By far the most superior coconut milk/cream that I found, Btw, I just discovered your website so look forward to cooking your recipes using your pastes. Sounds authentic!

Nitsa Raymond
Nitsa Raymond

December 24, 2016

Hi,
You need to read this: https://mythaicurry.com/blogs/blog/87756481-cooking-thai-curry-with-coconut-milk-in-a-slow-cooker-or-crock-pot.
You cook coconut milk differently when using a slow cooker.

Mona
Mona

December 24, 2016

Hi,
Thanks for all the valuable information. I am trying to convert the Thai red curry preparation to a electric pressure cooker way so that I can set it on a timer and food is ready when I come back home from work, due to lack of time. I use the pre made red curry paste. I pressure cooked it yesterday but the milk curdled (not talking about separation of oil). I had put everything together, how can I prevent milk from curdling? Any ideas greatly appreciated!
Thanks!

Ben
Ben

October 29, 2016

Great article and explanation. Its funny, I have been searching all over the internet to find an article of how to “split” my coconut milk as it would not do so following all the procedures. All articles are based on how to fix split milk. I tried all I could to split mine and it wouldn’t happen. The reason, inferior coconut milk. I now have a massive curry made which will taste great without the desired result.

Toni Priore
Toni Priore

October 07, 2016

Just wanted to add one thing. When my dad was manager of a factory he had a lot of Thai people working for him. They were wonderful people to My dad and to my family! When I worked at the same company as my dad one summer some of the Thai people I knew would bring me homemade lunches. Boy were they also so good. And they knew I can’t eat spicy so they made sure what they made for me wasn’t very spicy! The people who worked for m dad became friends with my family aften coming over on a Saturday ALWAYS bringing something yummy to eat. When they would come back to California from a visit back to Thailand they would show me the pictures and I could see how beautiful Thailand was. I have always wanted to visit Thailand because of these wonderful friends. I was a teenager back then and knowing our Thai friends opened my horizons. I still hope to visit Thailand one day! Now with your recipes I am going to try and make some delish Thai food! THANK YOU!

David
David

October 04, 2016

This is a really useful guide, thank you! I agree completely that the “light” and supposedly healthier versions of coconut milk ruin curries, but didn’t know about the 40% sweet spot, the additives or about Chaokoh and Amoy-D. I will seek them out next time I get the chance! :)

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