Who knew coconut milk could be so confusing?
At heart, it's a delicious liquid made from coconuts that can effortlessly add an exotically creamy richness to so many foods. Except that grocers sell about half a dozen different products that go by the same or very similar names. And they aren't interchangeable.
So let's start with what coconut milk isn't.
Coconut water is a hip new drink made from the liquid inside coconuts. Drink it (it's sold on the street as a hangover cure in Carribean nations), but don't cook with it.
Coconut milk beverage is a sweetened drink made from coconut milk and sugar. It's usually sold in boxes alongside soy milk.
Coconut cream is a very thick, fatty liquid made from steeping shredded coconut in hot water at a 4:1 ratio. It is sold in cans, usually in the international aisle.
Sweetened cream of coconut is coconut cream that has been (are you ready?) sweetened. It's intended for cocktails such as pina coladas.
Coconut milk is the real deal and the one you want for cooking. Coconut milk is made like coconut cream, but with a 1:1 ratio of coconut to water. The result is a thick, pourable product sold in cans in the international aisle.
In Southeast Asia, Africa and even South America, coconut milk is used in curries, soups (such as Thai chicken and coconut), sauces, even sweets, such as rice puddings and some baked goods. In the U.S., we see it most often in curries, cream pies and puddings.
While it isn't hard to make your own (simmer shredded coconut in water, then drain), let's face it: none of us is going to do that.
Canned coconut milk is widely available and inexpensive. But you will need to stir or shake it. The fatty "cream" will rise to the top of the can over time, creating a dense layer that needs to be mixed back into the watery liquid below.
Coconut-Lime Pulled Chicken Tacos
•2-pound rotisserie chicken
•1 cup coconut milk
•1/2 teaspoon cumin
•Zest and juice of 1 lime
•Splash hot sauce
•Salt and ground black pepper
•1/4 cup chopped cilantro
•Eight 6-inch flour tortillas, warmed
•1 small red onion, diced
•1 avocado, pitted and sliced
Remove the meat from the bone, then use your fingers to pull any larger chunks into bite-size pieces.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the chicken, coconut milk, cumin, lime zest and juice, and hot sauce. Simmer until heated through and thick. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, then remove from the heat. Stir in the cilantro, then divide among tortillas. Top with diced onion and avocado.