Unrefined coconut oil – you can smell it a mile away, you can taste it with all your taste buds and the most ardent fans cook with it, slather their hair and bodies with it, treat burns and skin problems and light diyas with it – just short of drinking it and brushing their teeth with it.
“Up until the 1930s every American food manufacturer used only coconut oil in food preparation.” Dr B M Hedge
Basically, people are like oil.
There are two kinds of people. Some (many) who you don’t notice even if they’ve been in the same room for hours, on the same park bench, at the same bus stop for years and behind the same office desk/cash-sales-counter for lifetimes. Others (much fewer than the first kind but enough to appear strategically like punctuation marks) who, the minute they walk into a room or just pass you by, everything in you pops to attention. Which doesn’t necessarily mean you fall in love with them (you may well fall in violent hate), but you will definitely notice them. In other words, they never fail to make their presence felt.
Oils are much the same.
Some (many) you don’t notice at all, only that food has been fried in them or that your fingers have their greasy signature. They are called “refined” (some even ‘double refined’). An interesting term because it means they are almost odourless, tasteless and colourless, a state achieved by bleaching these oils, subjecting them to very high temperatures and passing them through all kinds of chemicals. (Would you eat something if you know that it has been passed through something called hexane?) At the end of which they may well be “refined” but take a guess as to what happens to the essential nature of these oils and, more importantly, to many of their nutrients. (Yes, my dears, oils – the right kind – are a very good source of all kinds of healthy goodies including vitamin E, minerals and the all-important Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which play a vital role in preventing a whole range of ailments including depression, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis, but most importantly in preventing and managing heart disease.)
So in fact, while the word “refined” is to give you the feeling that you are now eating something into which great effort and expertise has been put to make it wonderfully good for your health (especially your heart), the “refinement” actually is for largely commercial reasons – to extract every drop of oil possible and increase the oil’s shelf life. And in the process, to also extract any character or taste or smell that these gorgeous oils once had.
And then there are oils that strut their stuff into your senses, arrogantly and loudly proclaiming, “I am like that only. Take it or leave it.” And like the people who make your attention pop, you may well love them. Or hate them. But you will definitely know who they are.
Because each of these oils is allowed to proudly wear the hallmarks of the source that they came from; not just the taste and smell but more importantly, the nutrients. And we cook in them because we love the way these oils let their presence waft out when we open the oil can and then the way that changes when we heat them to fry and sauté and temper and finally, how they make our food taste, lacing it with their special, distinctive flavour.
Many, many moons ago before it was New-Age fashionable to be so, everything was organic. And all oils were like this only. The New Age fashionable terms for them are “cold-pressed and virgin” (I’ve never quite understood what extra virgin means but I’m just relieved that it is a term never applied to women) which may sound very classy (and ‘refined’?) but what they actually mean is that the oils are completely, unashamedly “unrefined” – no bleach, no gas, no deodoriser, no steam; just an oil press to squeeze out the pure oil, with all of its signature taste, smell, colour and nutrients intact.
And the most shameless of these oils is unrefined coconut oil. You can smell it a mile away, you can taste it with all your 8,000 (oh all right, maybe 2,000) taste buds and the most ardently shameless fans of this shameless oil mostly live in the south of Karnataka and Kerala, where they cook with it, slather their hair and bodies with it, treat burns and skin problems – and even balding – with it, light the temple diyas (lamps) with it; in fact do everything short of drinking it and brushing their teeth with it. (Apparently Hollywood celebrities have recently made up for that – but more on that later).
But to truly plumb the depth the untrammelled passion that this shameless oil is known to evoke, let me tell you about my mum’s mum. My mum comes from south Karnataka and so, naturally, so did my grandmother. So, obviously she cooked in coconut oil, but not just any old coconut oil. It was common practice then for coconut oil to be extracted from copra that had been made by drying coconut (grown in your own backyard or farm, of course) – as my mother describes it – in “seven sunlights” (rough translation of Kannada). My guess is that “seven sunlights” means seven doses of a certain kind and strength of sunlight for a certain length of time. And when a new batch of oil thus extracted arrived, my grandmother – who if she wasn’t so classy and ‘refined’, would probably be drooling in anticipation – would honour its arrival by drizzling a few spoons of the headily ‘coconuty’, freshly ‘cold-pressed’, very virgin (extra?) coconut oil into some hot steamed rice, mixing it along with a few dashes of mango pickle and then – since there is no other word to describe the consuming ambrosia – eating it.
So. Coconut oil.
I know. Some (many) of you hate it (a lot of people hate Mel Gibson), others are too nervous to even try it. Because apart from all the other bad press it’s got (which we coconut oil lovers don’t give a rat’s posterior about), they’ve also heard that coconut oil is considered almost a health hazard by cardiologists and nutritionists.
Well, it’s like this. Every few years, research from the West on health and nutrition completely overturns itself and contradicts what till then has been considered as gospel truth. So, till a few years ago, coffee was poison, now it is said to have health benefits including protection against Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease, including liver cancer.
I know. Gasp, right?
Chocolate, once a mortal sin, now seems to reduce the risk of heart disease, also help lower blood pressure. And butter, my darlings, was much worse, which is why margarine, thank the good Lord, was the nutritional Archangel invented to save us from a fate worse than death – eating unbuttered toast. Now, they have switched places so that margarine is the devil incarnate (a\that heart-hater, transfat) that butter once was and vice versa.
I know. More gasp.
And coconut oil, which till about 2011, was the grandpappy of nutritional devils was suddenly resurrected to take its place on the hallowed altar of wonder-superfoods, almost jostling pomegranate juice, quinoa and wheat grass out of their hallowed spots. I kid you not because the ecstatic hysteria was so huge that Time magazine ran a cover story on it, Angelina Jolie started drinking tablespoons (two, apparently) of it for breakfast and Gwenyth Paltrow did oil pulling with it – which is not what you think but swishing the oil around your mouth for 20 minutes to give you whiter teeth and general oral health.
Gasp. Gasp. Gasp.
But, in the past few years, the gloss of coconut oil as a wonderfood has faded. And the reason for this is because of the Western scientific and medical community can’t make up their minds about saturated fats. (So what’s new, hahn.) Once upon a time, all saturated fats were evil. They caused all manner of serious ill health, the chief being heart disease. Now, many are saying that some saturated fats are actually good for you. And since coconut oil is choc-a-bloc full of these good bad guys (50 per cent), it may not be such a bad thing to eat. But others, including the American Heart Association, say that all saturated fats suck. And some days ago, Karin Michels, a professor at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, called coconut oil “pure poison”. She said it in German though - does it still count?
So, the jury is still out. But the consumption of coconut and its products continues to skyrocket in America so much so that price of coconut oil has gone up by 50 per cent since 2013 . And Ms Jolie apparently still has it as a breakfast slurp and Dr Oz, once Oprah’s Doctor of the Hour, had a two-part series on his show called Coconut Superpowers.
Naturally, here in India, we are waiting for the firangis (foreigners) to tell us it’s healthy to fry our pakoras and adirasams in coconut oil. (We’ve never got over our white-skin obsession, believing things only when the firangis tell us it is so. So, Krishnaraja Wodeyar nurtured three great yoga gurus, but nobody knew B K S Iyengar till Yehudi Mehuin discovered him.) Even though people in Kerala and south Karnataka have been eating coconut oil for hundreds of centuries with no evidence of a proclivity for heart disease. And even though 50 per cent of those naughty fatty acids in coconut oil get converted by the body into the same monoglyceride that is otherwise present naturally only in mother’s milk. Says not me, but Dr B M Hegde, leading Indian cardiologist, winner of the 1999 Dr B C Roy award and Padma Bhushan awardee, 2010. And even though, the same monogly-blah-blah has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties, so powerful that it is now being tested for its efficacy in destroying the HIV virus, your friendly neighbourhood cardiologist will still tell you to avoid coconut oil. Like the plague.
Wait. I haven’t finished. One reason for “refining” oils is to increase its shelf life and prevent making them go rancid. My mum says that my granny’s coconut oil supply was not monthly, not even quarterly, but annually. And all she would do to her unashamedly unrefined annual supply coconut oil was to pour it into an aluminium dabba and there it would sit for one whole year. Unspoiled, no preservatives. And that is because “coconut oil contains so many antioxidants that it resists oxidation even if it is preserved for as long as a year!” (Dr Hegde again)
And the final nail in the yuck-coconut-oil coffin. The kind of saturated fats that are present in coconut oil make it stable even at very high temperatures. So, if you love fried food – and who doesn’t – coconut oil is the oil for you.
I know. It’s time for one last, collective, heartfelt gasp.
But now let’s keep all the health arguments aside.
Because my point is simply this.
Would you fall in love with karela (bitter gourd) and happily quaff quarts of its juice just because it’s good for your diabetes? Don’t answer. What I mean to say is that love just happens. Or hate. You can’t make me love Shahrukh Khan. (I love Akshay Kumar, more so after Pad Man.) And I can’t make you love coconut oil. I do. But that’s also because I am half a south Kannadiga. And anyone from Kerala or south Karnataka has coconut oil stitched into their DNA. (No one has researched this but maybe mums’ breast milk from this region is laced with the stuff. Who knows?) So I have no choice.
But for the rest of you all – coconut oil is pretty strong stuff. So, if your beloved’s hair slathered with it makes your stomach heave in disgust or the smell of sliced unripe bananas gently frying in hot coconut oil and slowly transforming into chips makes you gag, there’s not much we can do.
That said, before I leave, I am going to make one last valiant attempt.
With a thing called Kerala stew. All kinds of lovely vegetables (apparently there’s a chicken version for you carnivores) slowly and gently stewed in that most lovable gentlest part of the coconut – coconut milk. (If you hate coconut milk, there’s not much to love in this world.) But here’s the rub. The finishing touch for the stew is a tadka. The namby-pambies amongst us would use any ol’ oil for it, even refined oil. But the original version is a generous amount (ladleful?) of unrefined coconut oil in which you fry curry leaves till they are crisp but still green and then pour the whole damn glorious thing over the stew.
If after reading this, you didn’t immediately go into paroxysms of ecstasy, muttering ‘Heaven!”, there’s no hope for you.
I end with this description of coconut oil in a 1912 British newspaper...
“...white, odourless, does not turn rancid and is infinitely superior to ordinary lard for all culinary purposes. It can be used with most delicate dishes without altering the natural flavour of the dish…”.