When you tentatively step onto the scales in January, cooking with fat is likely to be the furthest thing from your mind. After all, after a month of festive feasting, there’s enough of the stuff attached to your own body to fry a fair few samosas. But all fats were not created equal, especially in the case of coconut oil.
Why is it so wonderful? Hip health bloggers, vegan bakers and raw foodists are all going nuts for coconut oil, but in India its use is nothing new. Ayurvedic practitioners have advocated its use for millennia; its use both culinary and cosmetic. Coconut is the essential oil of Kerala’s cuisine, and science has declared it digestible and healthful – perhaps the reason the residents of ‘God’s Own Country’ remain in such fine fettle.
Keralite food anthropologist Ammini Ramachandran is an advocate of the oil, presenting its many positive properties in this article for Zester Daily. Although the prospect of saturated fat scares so many, coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids – considered to break down in the body as an excellent source of clean-burning fuel rather than sit on the hips. It’s also thought it may help the heart, not harm it like many animal or processed fat forms.
When considering coconut oil, Ammini rightly hammers home the importance of quality. Cheap, low-quality stuff just doesn’t cut it – it’s not best for your body and it can taste pretty terrible too. What you want is something cold-pressed, virgin, organic, and aromatic, Coconut oil should smell of its source, not be deodorised beyond detection.
A jar of Jeeva’s coconut oil is currently working hard in my kitchen, although it’s use is not restricted to that room. The beauty of coconut oil is its application as a kind of cosmetic, helpful to hair, skin, and teeth, too. Overnight application leaves scalps soothed, hair soft and shiny; as a moisturiser, coconut oil is gloriously gentle and easily absorbed; swished around the mouth for moments at a time in the method known as ‘oil pulling’, it should soon strengthen teeth and gums, and do away with the bacteria that harbour halitosis.
But the gastronomically inclined will be more interested to know how to cook with coconut oil. Outside the Indian kitchen, it’s a baker’s best friend – an exceptionally rare example of a fat that stays solid at room temperature without artificial hydrogenation. That means crisp biscuits; Magic Shell-like chocolate sauces which crisp on contact with ice cream; and even fluffy frostings where one has whipped it until it seems like dreamy buttercream.
But it’s Indian recipes that allow the eater to really relish coconut oil’s exquisite flavour – and none more so than those from the stunning state of Kerala. ‘God’s Own Country’ is responsible for the majority of India’s coconut crop, with its annual yield of thousands of millions of the things accounting for almost half the country’s output. It stands to reason, then, that the state’s name means ‘Land of Coconut Trees’ in Malayalam.
With such a sizeable crop, it’s also understandable that coconut crops up in almost every dish on the dinner table – not to mention the lunch and breakfast ones; and in snacks and sweets. Coconut oil is the most common cooking medium, meaning that anyone indulging in a multi-course onasadya (the harvest-time meal eaten at Onam, traditionally containing up to 64 items) will consume a considerable amount.
But of course, no matter how super a food or delicious the recipe it’s included in, no good will ever come of eating to excess. With a bit of balance, however, fats are fine and coconut oil is cracking. So please, go forth and go coconutty – just be mindful of moderation as you tuck into the below.
Hungry to set off on your own odyssey? Check out the following Keralite classics; all coconut oil-containing dishes…
Meen molee | Scrumptious sea fish stew with a spiced coconut milk gravy | Recipe: Kothiyavunu
Pachadi | Cold vegetable side dish with a tart, spice-tempered, curd-based sauce | Recipe: Padhu’s Kitchen
Thoran | Quick, dry stir-fry of shredded vegetables with grated coconut | Recipe: Padhu’s Kitchen
Kichadi | Cool, curd-based accompaniment tempered with spices sizzled in coconut oil | Recipe: Maria’s Menu
Avial | Festive mixed vegetable stew with a lightly-spiced curd-and-coconut gravy | Recipe: Padhu’s Kitchen
Olan | Very simple, light coconut-sauced vegetable stew, most often made with ash gourd | Recipe: Padhu’s Kitchen
Kalan | Thick yogurt, coconut and vegetable stew with a tasty tart-sour savour | Recipe: Kothiyavunu
Erissery | Thick, dry-ish stew most commonly prepared with pumpkin | Recipe: Cooking & Me
Ethakka upperi | Crunchy coconut oil-fried unripe banana chips | Recipe: Cooking & Me
Pazham pori | Deep-fried, battered sweet plaintain pieces | Recipe: Cooking & Me
Coconut rice | Short-grain rice cooked with grated coconut and seasoned with spices in coconut oil | Recipe: Sailu’s Kitchen
Ularthiyathu | Christian dish; a dry, flavour-packed, black pepper-spiked fry | Recipes: Kerala Recipes – pork, beef, fish, clam, prawn
Pulissery | Combination of coconut, fruit or veg and yogurt – hence the ‘puli’ (sour) in the name | Recipe: Cooking & Me
Kootu | A thick, nutritious, comforting mash-stew made with dal and myriad veggies | Recipe: Maria’s Menu
- To read Ammini Ramachandran’s article on coconut oil for Zester Daily, click here
- For more on Jeeva’s Raw Organic Virgin Coconut oil, click here
- For more on delicious South Indian dishes, click here
- For more on Onam in Kerala, click here
- For more on Holy Lama’s lovely liquid spice extracts from Kerala, click here and here