Coconut milk is distinguished from coconut water by its thicker consistency and milkier appearance. Unlike coconut water, which is the liquid found directly inside a coconut, coconut milk is the result of crushing coconut meat.
Coconut milk is traditionally made by grating the white inner flesh of a brown coconut and mixing the shredded coconut meat with a small amount of water in order to suspend the fat present in the grated meat. The grating process can be carried out manually or by comminution, a process that uses a more modern grating machine to facilitate the grating. Coconut milk exists in two grades: thick and thin. Thick coconut milk contains 20-22% fat while thin coconut milk contains 5-7% fat. Thick milk is prepared by directly squeezing grated coconut meat through cheesecloth. Thin milk is produced by soaking the squeezed coconut meat in water and further squeezing the meat until a thinner liquid forms. Thick milk contains soluble, suspended solids, which makes it a good ingredient for desserts and rich and dry sauces. Because thin milk does not contain these soluble solids, it is mainly used in general cooking. The distinction between thick and thin milk is not usually made in Western nations due to the fact that fresh coconut milk is uncommon in these countries and most consumers buy coconut milk in cartons or cans.
Coconut milk has a fat content of 24%, depending on the fat level of the coconut meat and the quantity of added water. When refrigerated and left to set, coconut cream will rise to the top and separate out from the milk. To avoid this in commercial coconut milk, an emulsifier and a stabiliser have to be used.
Manufacturers of canned coconut milk typically combine diluted and comminuted milk with the addition of water as a filler. Depending on the brand and age of the milk itself, a thicker, more paste-like consistency floats to the top of the can and is sometimes separated and used in recipes that require coconut cream rather than coconut milk. Some brands sold in Western countries add thickening agents or emulsifiers to prevent the milk from separating inside the can.
Coconut milk can be consumed on its own or as a milk substitute in tea, coffee, and baking. It is a common ingredient in many tropical and Asian cuisines for curries or other seasonings, meats, vegetables, garnishes, or desserts. Coconut rice is a rice cooked in coconut milk consumed in Southeastern Asia and the Caribbean. Nasi lemak is a Malaysian version of coconut rice, while the same dish is called nasi uduk in Indonesia. Coconut milk is also used throughout Asia for making traditional serabi, an Asian style pancake.