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Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 2

Kasma Loha-unchit, Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

The coconut milk-tasting exercise is an eye- and palate-opening experience for my cooking students on the very first session of their four-week beginning Thai cooking class. They are given 8 to 10 different brands of coconut milk to taste, ranging from excellent to mediocre to awful and unfit for consumption. Half or more of the cans end up being thrown out. The point is made and the lesson learned: not all coconut milk is the same, so don’t just go out and buy any brand if you wish to make a delicious Thai curry or dessert.

Tasting Coconut Milk

Tasting coconut milk

This valuable learning tool has become expensive with the price of coconut milk doubled and tripled what it was a couple of years ago due to the acute coconut shortage in Thailand – the world’s major producer and exporter of canned coconut milk. And it’s unlikely that the price will return to former levels any time soon (see our last blog about the coconut shortage). For someone who hates waste, it’s painful for me to see $10 to $15 gurgling down the drain. But it’s definitely well worth it for my students to learn to distinguish subtle differences through their sense of taste and come to know that choosing the best ingredients is an important starting point to becoming a good cook.

Along with the price hike, the quality has changed in some of the brands of coconut milk and not necessarily for the better. In order to meet rising demand with a reduced and limited supply of coconuts, companies have developed new ways to make more coconut milk out of fewer coconuts. That, of course, affects quality.

Students Tasting

Students tasting coconut milks

Canned coconut milk has become lighter and it’s now difficult to find cans with enough cream for some of those dishes that require rich coconut cream. My students find out from their tasting exercise that cans labelled as “coconut cream” are not necessarily creamier or richer than those labelled simply as “coconut milk.” In the past, I’ve depended on Chaokoh and Mae Ploy brands to supply me with the rich cream I needed for dishes such as haw moek (curried fish mousse), choo chee curry and rich desserts like coconut custards. These two brands are widely available in Southeast Asian markets in the Bay Area and usually come up top in tasting exercises.

Mae Ploy

Mae Ploy coconut milk

Each can of the same brand can have varying amounts of cream if it does not contain an emulsifier. I rely on shaking the can to determine how much cream it contains. If it sloshes like water, there’s no question that it is light; if it gurgles like a thick fluid, then it’s likely to be fairly rich; and if shaking hard produces no sound whatsoever and room temperature is cooler than 78 degrees in the store, then the can is likely to contain almost all cream. The coconut oil found in coconut cream firms up when the weather is cool; its melting point is 78 degrees. The shake test is how I collect my cans of thick cream for those Thai dishes that require them – and not by buying brands that say “coconut cream” on the label. Mae Ploy brand still has good cream content and the cans that pass the shake test can be relied on for those rich coconut-based dishes.

Avoid buying “light coconut milk” since you’ll be paying mostly for water. The flavor is in the cream, so choose cans that contain rich milk and then you can thin it with water any way you wish if you want your curry or soup to be lighter. But don’t be afraid of the oil in coconut milk; it’s one of the best fats for you and can actually help you lose weight as it has the ability to increase metabolism and burn off fat from other sources in your meal. (See The Truth About Coconut Oil on our website).

Chaokoh

Chaokoh coconut milk

Last year at the height of the coconut shortage when prices rose dramatically, I started noticing that Chaokoh had become lighter and, instead of having a thicker and sometimes coagulated cream on top and watery liquid on the bottom of the can, it appeared more emulsified. When heated, instead of melting down to a smooth, lighter fluid, it thickened up as if it contained starch. At the same time, it had become almost impossible to separate the oil from the cream in the first step of making a curry – frying the curry paste in coconut cream. This was frustrating for some of my students who emailed to ask what’s wrong with the Chaokoh coconut milk they’re buying. I also noticed that when making peanut sauce in class, the sauce unusually thickened more than I wanted it to.

Suspecting that starch had been added to the product without stating so on the label, Michael emailed the company to ask if they indeed had done so. Initially, we didn’t receive a reply. Michael emailed them an additional two times – again without any response. Finally, in frustration, he emailed them to say that we had recommended their product to thousands of our students over the years and if we didn’t hear from them, we could “un-recommend” their brand. That mild threat generated a prompt response.

Although they deny having added starch, they admit that their product now contains more carbohydrates than before. From our understanding of their reply, it seems that they have found a way to grind and reduce the pulp completely so that more of it is incorporated into the coconut milk. Because there is more pulp (i.e., carbohydrates), when the creamier-looking stuff on the top of the can is heated, there is little fat to be separated and that’s why you can’t see oil floating on top as you used to for frying your curry paste. At the same time, the milk thickens with the pulp acting like starch. Their reply also explains why their product looks more emulsified and why you won’t see thick coagulated cream as in the past on cold days or when the cans are refrigerated to make it easier to separate the cream in making dishes like haw moek.

Aroy-D

Aroy-D coconut milk

Thais do like to see a thin layer of oil floating on the top of their curries. It gives color to the dish instead of the pale whitish color of opaque coconut milk. Nowadays, to accomplish this and to help fry the curry paste to a tastier result, I recommend my students to buy and use pure coconut oil to fry curry pastes when they are making curries. Using other oils will add an oiler and often incompatible taste.

Although Chaokoh is now more or less low-fat, it still has good flavor. A good test of its superior flavor is when we used it to make coconut sorbet. It’s still creamy and has delicious coconut flavor. It does, however, contain a preservative.

For people who wish to stay away from preservatives, a readily available Thai brand is Aroy-D. It has fairly good coconut flavor, though when compared side-by-side with Chaokoh, it tastes a little bland and has less of the natural sweetness of fresh coconut milk. Some of this weakness can be balanced during cooking with the addition of palm sugar. Aroy-D has a new product: a 19 oz.-size can labelled as “Coconut Cream” with only coconut and water as the ingredients. It’s the only product labelled as “Coconut Cream” that I recommend. All the other brands labelled as coconut cream has a strong unnatural flavor from processing or from emulsifiers like guar gum added.

Natural Value

Natural Value coconut milks

In the past, besides Chaokoh and Mae Ploy, we’ve had pretty good luck with the Natural Value label (available locally at Rainbow Foods in SF and Farmer Joe’s in Oakland) for good, rich coconut milk that does not have any preservative or emulsifying additives. Natural Value is the only brand of organic coconut milk that we recommend because it does not contain guar gum: unfortunately most brands of organic coconut milk contain guar gum as an emulsifier. Guar gum ruins the natural flavor of the coconut milk, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, and does not work well in Thai cooking.

Coconut palms generally grow easily in poor, sandy soil along the coast and do not require much care as far as fertilizing or spraying to control diseases and pests. So most brands of natural-tasting coconut milk are pretty much organic but the plantations may not be “certified organic” for the milk to be labeled as “organic.” There are slightly different processing standards for organic as well.

The Natural Value brand that is not labeled “organic” is just as natural as the “organic” one – both only contain coconut extract and water and list no preservatives or emulsifiers. Natural Value wasn’t able to find a manufacturer in Thailand that produces “organic” coconut milk without guar gum added as emulsifier so their organic coconut milk now coms from the Philippines. Both of their products have  the added advantage of being in BPA-free cans. Both the organic and non-organic products are good, though we have found the organic to be not as rich as their non-organic product  (from Thailand) that can be thick with cream (but this could have changed with the coconut shortage).

Coconuts

Coconuts, too young for milking

Old Coconuts

Matured coconuts are used to make milk

Though prices have stabilized and may have begun to drop a little, it is unlikely that we will see the 69 cents we used to pay for a can of Chaokoh coconut milk a few years ago. The coconut shortage is a long-term problem as new groves have to be planted and time given for the new trees to reach maturity. The good news is the industry has been able to use biological means to control the pest problem instead of resorting to chemical pesticides.


Coconut Articles on Thai Food & Travel

Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 1

Ingredient Information and Use

Preparing and Using Coconuts

Coconuts in Thailand

Coconuts & Health


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, January 2013

Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 1

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Coconut Shortage Leads to Higher Prices and Compromised Quality (Part 1)

The price of canned coconut milk has doubled and tripled in the past couple of years, while the quality has changed and not for the better. Though prices have somewhat stabilized and may have even scaled back a little the last few months, it is unlikely that they will return to the same levels as before the spike – at least not in the short term.

Coconut Palm

Coconut palm trees

If you’ve noticed how your favorite brands of coconut milk, including the brands we recommend – particularly Chaokoh, seem to be different and not work as they used to in your Thai cooking, you’re right and it’s not your imagination. Many of our cooking students are concerned that they can no longer see coconut oil separating from the cream when they are heating it to make curries. And when making sauces and soups, they’ve noticed that the coconut milk unusually thickens rather than melting down to a smooth, lighter fluid.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Picking Coconut

Monkey picking a coconut

These things are happening because the large canned coconut milk producers have changed the way they make their products. The reason they had to do this is because of the acute coconut shortage – not from the skyrocketing production of canned and bottled young coconut beverages for the foreign market as some of our students have thought, nor from the devastating floods late last year, though this might have contributed to logistics costs. The culprit is a serous pest problem, aggravated by years of drought, that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of coconut palms in Thailand’s major coconut-growing provinces in the south. Notable are a number of non-native beetles, likely brought into the country with the ornamental plants imported from South Africa and Indonesia for the gardens of burgeoning tourist resorts.

In Koh Samui where coconuts count as heavily in the island’s economy as tourism, the rhinoceros beetles, which are up to two centimeters long, and the even larger coconut leaf beetles lay their eggs in the unopened flowers of coconut palms and feed on the young leaves of the trees. Their voracious appetite kills the trees and the insects move on to their next victim. This severe infestation has destroyed over 125,000 trees on the island and cut annual yield by 20 percent in 2010 and 2011.

Coconuts

Coconuts for grating

Of even greater concern is the tiny insect commonly known as the coconut hispine beetle (Brontispa longissima). Its minuscule size belies its ability in numbers to put the wheels of an entire industry to a screeching halt. Appearing in the midst of a two-year drought, this beetle has managed to decimate 35 percent of the coconut plantations in the southern peninsular province of Prachup Khiri Khan– by far the country’s largest coconut producer and famously known as the “coconut basket” of Thailand.

This destructive pest is native to Indonesia and according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (the FAO), it has spread throughout the Southeast Asia-Pacific region through ornamental palm shipments. (One of my students heard that a similar beetle is starting to appear in coconut groves in the Caribbean and may become a cause of concern there in the near future.) More than 20 species of palm are vulnerable to attacks by the hispine beetle with the coconut palm identified by the FAO as its “most favored host.” The insect feeds on seedlings and the young leaves of mature coconut trees and can quickly kill an adult tree in no time.

Grating Coconuts At Home

Coconut grater for home use

Grating Coconuts Commercially

Commercial coconut grater

The grave beetle infestation shrunk supply and tripled the domestic price of coconut from the 6 to 7 baht each in mid -2010 to over 20 baht in late January 2011. At the height of the disaster early last year, Thailand’s leading producer of coconut milk under the Chaokoh label was forced to import some 200,000 coconuts a day – ironically from Indonesia – but the volume the company was able to produce still fell far short of demand. Over 500,000 coconuts are needed each day to produce Chaokoh coconut milk.

Making Coconut Milk

Machine for making coconut milk

Although it has become expensive, domestic demand for coconut remains strong since it is a key, indispensable ingredient in many Thai desserts, curries and soups. Thais cannot do without their coconut milk, even if this means an increase in their cost of living. When fresh coconut milk is hard to find, customers turn to pre-packaged products and this has driven Chaokoh sales even more. According to a company spokesperson, “Despite the import volume being so large [i.e, import volume of whole coconuts], we can supply only 100 tons of coconut milk per day to the market, far less than the demand of 150 tons.”

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk desserts

A research team from Kasetsart University (Thailand’s premier agricultural university – much like UC Davis) is at the forefront in the fight against the much dreaded hispine beetle. Fortunately for those of us who prefer our coconut milk as natural as possible, the pests are being battled with biological means rather than toxic chemical insecticides. Three different biological agents have been tested and proven effective. One is a fungus whose spores germinate and grow inside the beetle, killing it within days. The fungus then emerges from the carcass and spreads to other hispine beetles. A second biological weapon is a predatory “stink” bug and the third is a parasitic insect that attacks the beetle at the larval stage. These natural tools are gradually eliminating the pest – good news for coconut growers.

On Koh Samui, the Department of Agriculture is successfully using a parasitic insect to control the destructive beetles on the island. Local authorities are working hard to make the island a center of coconut production again. They have teamed up with tourism authorities to start a scheme whereby the 1.1 million annual visitors are asked to sponsor the planting of coconut seedlings: for 300 baht each their names will be put by the trees they sponsor. The goal is to plant a million new palms and as of June last year, a quarter of a million have been planted, Most have foreign names by their side as 85 percent of tourists to the island are from overseas.

Coconut Sprout

Sprouted Coconut

Coconut palms are recovering. Seriously injured and dead trees, plus old trees susceptible to diseases and pests, are being cleared from the plantations. Farmers are planting new drought- and pest-resistant hybrids to replace them. The catch is: it will take five to eight years for the new plants to mature and start bearing fruit. The coconut shortage will not be alleviated any time soon.

The supply and demand situation means the price of canned coconut milk for those of us who cook Thai food in the Bay Area will likely remain high for several more years. In an attempt to increase coconut milk production with limited supplies of coconuts, some companies, including the producer of Chaokoh coconut milk, have modified how they make coconut milk. The resulting products have noticeably changed and do not work quite the same way in American kitchens. We will cover how the products have changed and what brands we now recommend in Part 2 of our blog.


Coconut Articles on Thai Food & Travel

Ingredient Information and Use

Preparing and Using Coconuts

Coconuts in Thailand

Coconuts & Health


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2013

When Chillies are Too Hot

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, December 12th, 2010

How do you deal with a burning mouth from a very hot chilli pepper?

Many people do not realize that the hotness of chillies, which comes from the natural chemical capsaicin, is not water soluble. Have you ever noticed that when your mouth is on fire, no matter how much ice-cold water or beer you drink, the burning sensations linger? Water or beer only temporarily relieves the burning while you are drinking it, but as soon as you stop, you find the hot flames still leaping.

Chopping Chillies

Chopping chillies

Instead of water, try milk next time, or something that contains cream or oil— capsaicin is oil soluble. A dessert with coconut milk can end a spicy meal nicely as it douses out the fire in your mouth. Some people have also found a full-bodied red wine to help during a meal, more so than white wine. Chewing and swallowing mouthfuls of plain warm rice is another way to wipe away traces of capsaicin in your mouth—better yet, rice mixed with sauce from non-spicy stir-fried vegetables as it contains some oil.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk

If you have sensitive skin, you may wish to take precautions when working with chillies. When slicing the peppers, try not to touch the interior lining because it contains the highest concentration of capsaicin. Hold the peppers by the shiny skin and when de-seeding, use the blad of a knife instead of your fingers to scrape out the seeds. Or, you can simply avoid the seeds all together by slicing the peppers lengthwise around the inner core that contains the seeds and hot membranes. But if your mouth can take the heat, don’t bother to deseed the chillies at all.

Limes

Limes can help

If after taking these precautions you still find your fingers burning and throbbing, wash your hands several times with a soap that contains a high concentration of oil or cream. Fresh sap from the aloe vera plant and oil-based ointments of aloe, comfrey or calendula also help relieve some of the burn. Lime juice can be effective, too, and I have heard that a strong vinegar works equally well. When you prepare a big Thai meal, save the rind of the fresh limes squeezed for a sauce or salad; the remaining drops of juice combined with the essential oils in the zest will help clean your hands later of traces of capsaicin. If you have ultra-sensitive skin, wearing thin rubber gloves when working with chilli peppers is advisable. Just as people with fair complexions tend to get sunburned easily, I believe that they, too, are particularly susceptible to chilli burns.

Roasting Chillies

Roasting chillies

Whether or not you have sensitive hands, always remember that when cooking Thai, avoid rubbing your eyes with your hands at any time. Your fingers may not burn from touching chillies, but your eyes certainly will. Capsaicin is very easily picked up by your fingers, and even the minutest trace can burn the sensitive linings around the eyes. If this accident does happen, do not panic. Wash with the suggested antidotes and avoid rubbing; the burning will fade away in time.

When roasting chilli peppers, especially the dried variety, make sure there is plenty of ventilation. Dried peppers can burn easily (turn them frequently and watch them carefully), and burnt chilli fumes in the air are painfully irritating to the linings of your throat and lungs. For the same reason, when stir-frying with chillies and chilli pastes over high heat, make sure the fan over your stove is turned on.


See also:


(Click on an image to see a larger version.)


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2010.