Who knew coconut milk could be so confusing?
It shouldn't be. At heart, it's a delicious liquid made from coconuts (duh!) 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 that is made from the liquid inside coconuts. Drink it, 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. Pina colada anyone?
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 (like 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.
For more ideas for using coconut milk, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column over on Food Network: http://bit.ly/JgD8aq
Coconut-Lime Pulled Chicken Tacos
Start to finish: 25 minutes
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 fresh cilantro, chopped
Eight 6-inch flour tortillas, warmed
1 small red onion, diced
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced
Remove the meat from the chicken, 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 the mixture between the tortillas.
Top each serving with diced onion and avocado. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 610 calories; 290 calories from fat (48 percent of total calories); 33 g fat (15 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 39 g carbohydrate; 40 g protein; 6 g fiber; 970 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.