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There's nothing like a tempting taste to evoke pleasant memories. When I sampled Filipino ginataang mais, a creamy corn and rice pudding with coconut milk, my first spoonful took me back to Paris. I thought of my friend Somchit, a Thai chef who studied French cooking with me in the French capital in the '70s. Somchit, who is now the chef/resort manager in a villa in the seaside resort of Phuket, taught my husband and me how to make luscious warm coconut milk desserts. Our favorite was one with tapioca and taro root (a potato-like tuber). It was so delicious we wished we'd never finish our bowls.
After tasting ginataang mais, we proceeded to explore an entire Filipino category of warm coconut-milk desserts known as ginataang. In addition to rice and corn, my husband and I sampled a pudding called ginataang halo halo, with casava (another potato-like tuber), purple yams (super-sweet bright purple sweet potatoes), tropical fruit and tapioca.
A few days ago I found a different variation on this theme. As we were driving in Los Angeles, we noticed a sign that read "Tofu Factory" and we immediately turned around to check it out. It was a Vietnamese vegan eatery that could easily have been called "Parve Paradise" - everything there was plant based. We took home a yummy dessert - sticky rice with coconut flakes. It came with a mixture of sugar and chopped roasted salted peanuts for sprinkling over the delicately-sweet rice grains.
Although its basic components of rice, coconut and sugar were similar to those of the Filipino sweet, the results were completely different. The Filipino dessert was soft and saucy, for eating with a spoon, while the Vietnamese one was firm like a cake.
People throughout southeast Asia and westward to south India share a love for desserts of grains and coconut milk. Indonesian rice pudding features coconut milk, brown sugar syrup, vanilla and grated fresh coconut. Minh Kim, the author of 200 Recettes de Cuisine Vietnamienne (Grancher, Paris, 1988), makes a rice and coconut dessert with ground soy beans and brown sugar.
In the Philippines, the corn and rice dessert is so popular that it's available even as instant mixes. I had thought that this combination was specific to the Philippines, perhaps due to the American influence on the cuisine after World War II. But other cooks in the region combine corn and rice for dessert, too. According to Chef Su-Mei Yu, the author of Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking, Thais prepare a warm rice and corn dessert flavored with roasted sesame seeds; she serves hers with coconut ice cream.
Notwithstanding coconuts' saturated fat, some nutritionists feel that coconut has redeeming qualities. According to Nutiva, a producer of coconut oil and healthful hemp-based foods, "The traditional Pacific Islander diet included large quantities of coconut, and those who still follow this diet have a low incidence of heart disease or overweight."
In an article in the Philippine Journal of Cardiology, Dr. Conrado S. Dayrit wrote: "The countries consuming the highest amounts of coconut oil - the Polynesians, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians, Filipinos have not only low serum cholesterol but also low coronary heart disease rates." Dianne Onstad, the author of Whole Foods Companion (Chelsea Green, 1996), wrote of coconut milk: "In chemical balance it compares to mother's milk, and is a complete protein food when taken in its natural form."
While these opinions do go against the advice of mainstream health professionals, most nutritionists agree that once in a while, it's okay to indulge in luscious foods like butter, ice cream or coconut milk. Occasionally, instead of using coconut milk, I substitute soy milk or rice milk and sprinkle the finished pudding lightly with toasted shredded coconut or chopped nuts.
Corn and Rice Pudding with Coconut Milk
Asians make this pudding soft or firm, according to taste. You can vary the proportions and the type of rice, and this dessert will still be delicious. I use risotto rice, which is easier to find than Asian sticky rice; you can use any short or medium-grain rice. You can even use brown rice, but cook it for 30 minutes in the first step.
3â„4 cup rice, preferably short-grained rice
3 to 31â„2 cups canned coconut milk, or a mixture of coconut milk and water (see Note below)
pinch of salt
1 cup frozen or canned corn
1â„3 cup sugar, or more to taste
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a heavy saucepan and add rice. Boil 7 minutes; drain well. Bring coconut milk to a boil in the same saucepan. Add rice and salt. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add corn and bring to a simmer, stirring. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until rice and corn are very soft and absorb the milk. If they absorb the milk before becoming soft, gradually add a few more tablespoons coconut milk or water and continue to cook. Pudding should be creamy, not soupy and not dry.
Stir in sugar and cook over low heat for 1 minute, stirring. Serve warm.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: Preparing Coconut Milk: If you want to make your own coconut milk from dried coconut, here's an easy way to do it:
Put 2 cups dried coconut in a blender and add 2 cups hot water. Blend well, and let mixture cool a bit. Strain into a bowl, pressing on the coconut in the strainer. For a finer consistency, first line the strainer with cheese cloth and set it over a bowl, then squeeze the coconut in the cheesecloth to extract the coconut milk. You can keep the coconut milk in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).