Your guide to the food and culture of the tropics


Coconut Milk Recipes: 4 Ways to Use the Darling of the Tropics

Few treats are as blissfully enjoyable as a fresh coconut drink on a sweltering hot day, but pina coladas aren’t the only use for this versatile ingredient. Travel through tropical countries in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and northern South America, and the delectable treat will come served the way mother nature intended: au naturel.

In the warm region of the tropics, where coconuts grow in abundance, fresh coconut milk has been a staple of local cooking since time immemorial. What’s amazing is that it’s used in literally everything. It’s added to fruit and vegetable juices, used in the cooking of sticky rice, and to tenderize tough meat. It is included in all dishes, from desserts to spicy curries, soups, and stews. The smooth and sweet taste, as well as the silky texture, makes coconut milk an ideal accompaniment to spicy dishes. This is especially true in Southeast Asia, a region of the tropics that boasts one of the spiciest cuisines.

Contrary to what many believe, coconut milk is not made using the water found inside the coconut, but rather, it’s made from grating the flesh of the inside of a mature nut. A complex process of soak and squeeze (learn how to make your own coconut milk right here) results in a smooth creamy milk whose health benefits have brought it into the international spotlight in recent years. Although high in calories, coconut milk has been found to contain beneficial lauric acid. CThe coconut is packed full of rich nutrients which are heavenly not only for your digestive system but also your skin and hair, most especially when it’s processed to produced coconut oil.

Thankfully, coconut milk’s recent surge in popularity means that cans of the creamy gem are no longer relegated to the exotic aisles of the fanciest supermarkets back home. Nowadays, it’s as ubiquitous abroad as it is on its home turf.

Ready to take a round-the-world culinary trip of indulgence?

Here are some of our favorite delicious tropical recipes using coconut milk. From our kitchen to yours!

4 Coconut Milk Recipes

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(Photo: Flickr jacqueline)

Caribbean Coconut Chicken

This easy, fast, and sublime comfort dish hails from Hawaii and is just the ticket for that last-minute, impromptu dinner with friends. For added flavor, add sliced pineapple to the dish.

Caribbean Coconut Chicken
  • 4 skinless and boneless chicken breasts, diced
  • 1 tsp. cooking oil
  • 1 ½ onions, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, sliced
  • 2 cloves minced fresh garlic
  • 1 can (500ml) coconut milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  1. In a large heavy based frying pan, cook the diced chicken breast in batches, until all pieces re thoroughly cooked. Remove and set aside.
  2. Add the onions, peppers, and garlic to the frying pan and stir until soft. Add the minced garlic and the coconut milk.
  3. Continue to stir until the milk starts to bubble, add the cooked chicken and cook for 5 minutes and remove from the stove. Season with salt, pepper, and chili flakes, to taste.
  4. Serve with a few wedges of lime and a bowl of steaming jasmine rice.

FillipinoGinataang Manok (Chicken Cooked in Coconut Milk)

Forget fresh flowers, this Filipino dish will make your house smell wonderful!

If you’re short on time, feel free to substitute the fresh ginger and garlic for powdered versions.

Ginataang Manok
  • 3 tbsp. cooking oil
  • ½ cup sliced fresh ginger
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces/2kg (5lb) of mixed chicken pieces
  • 2 cans coconut milk
  • 2 cups pre-washed, fresh spinach
  • ½ cup sliced spring onions
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Heat the cooking oil in a large frying pan and cook the ginger slices and garlic until browned. Remove the ginger from the pan, and add the chicken pieces. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. After all the pieces of chicken are lightly browned, return the garlic and ginger to the pan and add the coconut milk.
  3. Cover with a lid, lower the heat to a minimum and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Lift the lid, add the fresh spinach and stir for 2-3 minutes, until spinach has wilted. Taste and add season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Remove from heat, top with sliced spring onions and set on the table! Serve with steamed rice.


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(Photo: Flickr Manitoba Coupon Maven)

Thai Coconut Soup

This would have to rate as the most delicious soup in all of Southeast Asia. It may be a little more time-consuming to prepare, but it is worth all the effort! This recipe serves eight and makes for a healthy starter or a wonderful main meal if you add two packets of instant vermicelli.

Thai Coconut Soup
  • 1 tbsp. cooking oil
  • 2 tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, minced (or 1tsp. lemongrass paste)
  • 2 tsp. red curry paste
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp. light brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 3 cans coconut milk
  • 1 lb (500gr) fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 lb (500g) fresh shrimp - peeled and cleaned
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • salt to taste
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  1. Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pot and stir in the lemongrass, ginger, and curry paste. Fry for 2 minutes.
  2. Pour in the chicken broth, add the sugar and the fish sauce. Stir well, lower the heat to a minimum, and simmer for about 10 minutes with the lid on.
  3. Add the coconut milk and mushrooms, and cook for a further 5 minutes.
  4. Add the shrimp and vermicelli noodles (if using) and cook for a further 5 minutes.
  5. Stir in the lime juice, season with salt, and top with chopped cilantro.
  6. Divide in 8 equal bowls and serve.

Beef Rendang, Coconut, Coconut Milk, TropicsGourmet, Tropical, TropicsBeef Rendang

Beef Rendang hails from the highlands of west Sumatra yet it has become so popular that it’s now prepared all over Indonesia. The specialty of this dish is that it’s cooked over low heat for many hours, allowing all the spices, and the coconut milk, to penetrate the fibers of the beef. The addition of candlenuts, or Indian walnut as it is also known, creates a nutty and creamy flavor that is just incredible. At home, Macadamia nuts are a good substitute.

When cooked to perfection, Beef Rendang is an absolutely mouth-watering delicacy.

Beef Rendang
  • 2.2 lb (1kg) beef cubes
  • 1 tbsp. dried chili
  • 5 candlenuts
  • 3 lemongrass stalks, white part only
  • ⅔ cup (150g) shallots
  • 1 tbsp. garlic
  • 1 tbsp. blue ginger (galangal)
  • ½ tbsp. ginger
  • 3 turmeric leaves, finely sliced
  • 2 stalks of kaffir lime leaves, tear the leaf
  • 2 lemongrass (white part only, pounded and sliced)
  • 1 small piece tamarind peel (or 1 teaspoon dried tamarind powder)
  • 1½ cup water or adjust accordingly
  • 1½ cup coconut milk or adjust accordingly
  • 2 tbsp. roasted coconut
  • 5 tbsp. cooking oil
  • ¼ cup (50g) palm sugar, as needed
  • Salt
  1. Place all the ingredients in the 1st Part into a blender to make a smooth paste
  2. Heat the cooking oil in a wok, add the blended paste and sauté for 2 minutes
  3. Add the cubed beef and stir for 2 minutes
  4. Add all the ingredients of the 2nd Part, as well as the water, and mix well. Add 1 teaspoon of salt.
  5. Simmer on low heat for 2 hours with the lid on, stirring occasionally and adding more water if the mixture dries up too much.
  6. Add the roasted coconut and the coconut milk. Cook until the sauce thickens.
  7. Remove the lid and add salt and palm sugar to taste, stirring continuously until the mixture is almost dry.
  8. Your Beef Rendang is ready! Serve with steamed rice and a wedge of lime for extra zest.

Written by

Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 11 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now, along with her partner in love and travel, riding a motorbike from Germany to Australia. Laura moonlights as a freelance travel writer and, between adventures, loves sharing her travel ramblings on her personal website:Laura's Travel Tales