There’s as much politics in edible oil as the oil we run our vehicles on. And while it has never incited a war, debates rage in research laboratories and in the markets. Coconut oil is much loved in Kerala. Extracted from the creamy white flesh of the coconut, its devotees swoon over the distinctive taste of ‘Nendra chips‘, yellow, thinly sliced and deep fried from the long bananas grown in the state. It is the staple is every local dish, from fish curry to ‘avial‘, a delicious mishmash of vegetables in a thick gravy served on festive occasions. It is also the secret of the black tresses of native damsels who wear their hair long. Coconut oil is one of the best moisturisers known, even better than the celebrated olive oil. But to its detractors, coconut oil is evil. It evokes strong reactions among the foodies who cannot tolerate its aroma. Like mustard oil, the palate has to be conditioned to accept it.
Across the world, coconut oil has got a bad rap on the health front for its saturated fat content. Studies from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest claim that coconut oil is a villain, delivering as much as 1200 calories on every large serving of popcorn. Other researchers now accept that not all saturated fats are the same. Lauric acid, the main saturated fat in coconut oil actually increases the good HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. One of the biggest groups supporting the movement for coconut oil are vegans looking for a sweet vegetable fat alternative to butter for baking pies, scones, and cupcakes. Coconut oil admirably fits the bill. And gourmands extoll the virtues of baking and frying with it.
It’s the new darling of the natural foods world with Whole Foods reporting annual increases in the high double digits for the last several years. But back in Kerala, they knew that all along. A dollop of coconut oil after seasoning the final dish adds body and flavour. Pour it lightly over mango pickle with thin cubes of raw onion and it transforms the original taste into a delicious tangy note. Add it to the ‘idly powder’ and it makes breakfasts a lot more exciting. And if you don’t mind smelling mildly of coconuts, rub a little into the hair. But too much can revive the famous ‘pasty’ look, widely detested and a magnet for bullies at school.