The expression “What grows together goes together” is a cliché, but it’s true: In temperate climates, strawberries go with rhubarb; where it’s cold, preserved fish and rye bread are a dynamic duo; and near the equator, coconut gets cooked with rice.
Coconut Rice Two Ways
But coconut rice varies from one tropical cuisine to another. The coconut component might be fresh or dried, or it might be canned milk or cream. Some versions are served plain or perhaps with a squeeze of lime; others are embellished with spices, alliums, chiles, tomatoes, meat, fish, or beans. But get this: Even the simple versions made with few ingredients can have surprisingly different flavors and textures. After cooking a handful of recipes from around the globe, I homed in on two styles that I loved for their ability to pair well with a range of dishes—and for the fact that, despite having nearly identical ingredients (rice, canned coconut milk, sugar, and salt), they were as different as could be.
A Thai Take
The first was coconut rice from Thailand: hung kao mun gati. This simple, elegant dish always seems to take my meal up a notch when I order it in restaurants. It turns out that it may have an illustrious provenance: Sources suggest that it can be traced to the Persians in the court of King Narai of Thailand (1632–1688), who enjoyed rice dishes prepared with liquids other than water, including coconut milk.
Happily, this Thai classic is just as easy to make as plain white rice: All you do is simmer jasmine rice in a mixture of coconut milk, water, sugar, and salt until the liquid is absorbed. The simple simmer leaves the grains rich-tasting and subtly sweet, with a tender, slightly clingy texture. Serve the rice as is or top with garnishes such as fried shallots and chopped peanuts.
One of the few variables I saw among recipes for the Thai version was the ratio of coconut milk to water used to cook the rice. While many incorporated a full 14-ounce can (plus water) for 1½ cups of rice, I found the rice too oily and perfumed. After some trial and error, I found my sweet spot: 1½ cups of rice cooked in 1 cup of coconut milk and 1½ cups of water. I also found that it was necessary to treat the rice as I would in any other application, rinsing it well to rid it of excess starch that would otherwise make the grains gummy and letting it stand for 10 minutes after cooking, which allowed the moisture to distribute evenly throughout. Unlike plain rice, a gentle stir was necessary before serving this version to blend in any coconut oil that had risen to the top.
Hung kao mun gati pairs as beautifully with traditional entrées such as stir-fries, curries, and satay as it does with everything from steamed vegetables to lean fish to rich grilled pork.
Now spin the globe; we’re going to the Caribbean.
Arroz con titoté, a tan-colored, brown-flecked coconut rice that is popular in beachside restaurants along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, is a knockout dish whose taste stunned me the first time I cooked it. Made with virtually the same ingredients as its Thai cousin, it featured a toasty aroma and rich nutty flavor that I barely recognized as coconut—a result of the unique treatment of the coconut milk.
Here’s how it works: Pour a whole can of coconut milk into a saucepan and boil it until all the water is gone, leaving only coconut oil and tiny particles of coconut solids. Then keep cooking until those coconut solids darken to a rich, toasty brown. Add the rice and coat it well with the fat before stirring in water, brown sugar, salt, and raisins.
When I first made this dish, which is often served with whole grilled or fried fish and patacones (double-fried smashed plantains), I expected it to be heavy and sweet, but it was neither. Coating the rice grains with fat before adding the liquid was a classic pilaf strategy that ensured that the grains cooked up separate and not gluey (here again, rinsing the rice was also critical). And the browned coconut, which along with the rendered fat is known as titoté, imparted very little coconut heft and creaminess and more of a rich toasty depth instead (see “Coaxing Nutty Flavor from Coconut Milk”). The raisins heightened the dish’s slight sweetness without making it seem at all dessert-y. A spritz of lime, the traditional garnish, snapped all the flavors into focus.
Coaxing Nutty Flavor from Coconut Milk
Coconut usually calls to mind an intensely fruity aroma and a creamy vanilla-like flavor. These distinctive characteristics come from volatile compounds in the fruit called lactones; lactones also contribute flavor to pineapples and peaches. Simmering coconut milk, as we do for Thai coconut rice as well as for many soups and braises, causes some of the lactones to dissipate, but enough remain to make these dishes recognizably coconutty. But you can bring a whole other dimension to coconut milk by changing the way you cook it. For Colombian arroz con titoté, you simmer the coconut milk until its water evaporates, the oil separates out, and the coconut solids brown in the oil. This process drives off the lactones and creates new compounds, transforming the milk’s fresh coconut flavor into something that tastes richer, nuttier, and more buttery. In fact, some of these new compounds (pyrazines, pyrroles, and furans) belong to the same families of flavor compounds that give true nuts such as pecans or almonds their characteristic flavors.
Be Patient and Keep Cooking
Getting the water in the coconut milk to evaporate and the solids to brown can take 20 minutes or longer. But don’t worry—it will get there eventually.
This is not to say my arroz con titoté was completely without problems. Some brands of coconut milk had a tendency to splatter dramatically during the reducing step, which was messy and hazardous until I thought to partially cover the saucepan. And some cans of the stuff simply refused to separate into fat and solids due to the presence of emulsifiers, so I had to be careful to buy one that listed only coconut and water on the label. I also had to learn to be patient while the milk reduced and to trust that the oil would eventually separate out. Then I had to allow the coconut solids to get good and dark before I added the rice to ensure that the dish had just the right nutty flavor.
With those issues sorted, I had another—quite different—coconut rice in my repertoire that also amply demonstrated how brilliantly these two ingredients work together.