In the Philippines, any food that is cooked in coconut milk can be described as ginataan, which literally means, “done with coconut milk”. The term is used generically to describe nearly any food, from seafood to desserts, so long as coconut milk is the main broth. One food known solely as ginataan, however, is a type of dessert that contains a variety of tubers and other ingredients and is cooked in coconut milk to create a sugary, glossy, sweet soup. In general, the different varieties of ginataan simply have the name of their featured food attached to the end, as is the case with ginataan bilo-bilo, or glutinous rice balls in coconut milk.
When a ginataan dish calls for coconut milk, there are actually two varieties that can be used, sometimes in tandem. The first is called thick coconut milk, or first-pressed milk. The second type is known as thin coconut milk. Both are created by shredding the flesh of a coconut, although the milk that comes out by pressing the meat the first time is considerably thicker than that of the later pressings. The thin milk is often extracted by soaking or boiling the once-pressed coconut flesh in water, making it much lighter in texture.
The classic dessert dish that is most often called ginataan starts with a number of different types of tubers. The most common are yams and taro root. These are added to a pot that contains thick and thin coconut milk along with some sugar. Plantains and jackfruit also can be added to the soup. All ingredients are cubed into small, bite-size pieces so they will cook evenly.
As the coconut milk and other ingredients cook, another addition to ginataan is a type of starchy ball. These can be tapioca pearls or handmade balls. The balls are made by mixing water with rice flour and then forming small pearls that are placed into the boiling coconut milk. The entire soup is simmered until all the ingredients are tender and there is a glossy sheen to the dish.
The thickness of the completed soup can vary depending on the preferences of the cook. The coconut milk will thicken as the starchy ingredients cook. The finished dish can be very thin, runny and soup-like. It also can be cooked for a much longer time, reducing the milk until it thickens to a stew-like consistency.