Cream of the Crop

Coconut milk and cream bring richness to a wide variety of Thai dishes

Coconut milk

Coconut milk

Penny de Los Santos

Coconut milk and cream, key Thai ingredients, are made by straining grated coconut meat with water. The resulting liquid separates into milk—used to braise meats and finish curries—and the thicker, fattier cream for frying pastes. To use coconut cream like a cooking fat, you first have to do what is called "cracking" it; you have to heat it until the water evaporates and the oil separates from the proteins. The oil adds unctuousness, and when it rises to the top of a cooling curry, it acts as an anaerobic preservative, a benefit for Thai cooks, who prefer to serve curries at room temperature. Though freshly made milk and cream are unbeatable, they're work to make, and good coconuts aren't easy to find here. But some decent alternatives do exist. Carton-packed Thai brands like Aroy-D, which are ultra heat treated (UHT) so that they're shelf-stable, crack easily and taste clean and fresh. And while emulsified canned creams can taste muted and take longer to separate, if you do use cans, Mae Ploy and Savoy, two Thai brands, are best.

_Aroy-D UHT coconut milk, $10 for a 33-oz. pack; amazon.com

Aroy-D 100% pure coconut cream, $10 for a 34-oz. box; amazon.com

Mae Ploy coconut milk, $3 for 19-oz. can; pinoyoutlet.com

Savoy coconut cream, $3 for a 14-oz. can; ishopindian.com _