Ask Peter: Separating coconut cream when making curries
When making Asian coconut cream-based curries, recipes often say to heat the coconut cream in a wok first until it separates, before adding spices etc. I have great trouble getting mine to separate at all. Does it matter? Laura
Oh the good old days . . . I can remember when you would put a can of coconut milk (as I’m sure it used to be called before it became coconut cream) in the fridge for a few hours before making a curry. The fat naturally floats on the top (just as cream floats on top of milk), and chilling would cause the fat to really firm up. You’d open the tin upside down to decant the liquid out, then turn the can over and take off the top, and push the set fat out of the tin. The fat could then be used for cooking sauces, curries etc, and the liquid lower parts could be added to a curry once the spices were cooked. If you make your own coconut cream as I most recently did in Niue, by finely grating fresh coconut flesh then squeezing the moisture from it, you’ll find you can put that into a bowl or jug, place it in the fridge, and you’ll also be able to separate the fat from the liquid.
These days, most coconut creams seem to be somewhat emulsified and there is simply no separation, so although they can seem richer, I’m thinking they’re probably less so. The emulsification means the liquid and fats are suspended together so every tablespoon is a combination of coconut fat and coconut “water”. This means that if you wanted to fry your curry paste and spices in coconut oil, you’d have to boil the coconut cream for quite a while before the water evaporates, leaving the split and separated coconut oil (ie fat) sizzling away. For those readers who perhaps don’t understand this concept — it’s particular to Southeast Asian and Southern Indian kitchens (where coconuts are abundant), whereby instead of frying spices and pastes in vegetable oil as you probably do normally, you cook coconut cream over high heat until the liquid has evaporated and the fat begins to sizzle, which you then use as though it were vegetable oil. It gives the curry a delicious coconutty flavour and though it’ll still be rich and high in kilojoules, you’ll feel virtuous that you didn’t add any extra oil or fat.
To get around these modern coconut creams, you can of course simply fry your paste and spices in coconut oil, then add a can of the cream as you would normally as the liquid in the curry or soup. But if you’re keen to make it the more traditional way then you need to cook it in a wide-based pan or wok (to allow for more evaporation — a small pan will simply simmer away until you get bored with the concept and give up) over medium heat, and you’ll need to be patient.
If you want to make your own coconut cream and you have access to a fresh coconut, then apart from opening the coconut in the first place, it’s quite easy and fun to do. Remove the hard brown shell and cut the coconut flesh into 4 or so pieces, and peel the brown ‘skin’ off with a potato peeler. Slice the white flesh into smallish pieces and place in a blender, filling only a quarter full. Cover with tap-hot water to fill it half-way. Start blending on slow then gradually increase to full speed for 30 seconds. Tip into a fine sieve and repeat until you’ve blended all the flesh. Press the liquid from the flesh (you could squeeze it out from a clean tea towel) and what you now have is coconut milk. If you’re making a cake or a curry you can add the pureed fleshy bits as well which add texture and a little flavour to the finished dish.
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