January 2013 – The Wonders (and Politics!) of Palm Oil with Jolie Assina

Our January potluck dinner meeting featured Jolie Assina of Coconut Cow telling us all about Palm Oil.  We learned that palm oil comes from a type of palm that bears the palm fruit.  It is a tree that is indigenous to West Africa, whose products are primarily exported from Ghana.  Nutritionally speaking, in addition to having all the health benefits of coconut oil, it also contains lots of Vitamin E, and is even used to make Vitamin E supplements.  It has a very healthy fatty acid profile with plenty of heat-stable fats, making it a great and flavorful cooking oil.  Palm oil comes in a variety of different types, ranging in color from gold to dark orange. 

When selecting a palm oil, Jolie advised us to be aware of both where it comes from and the methods of processing.  Being from West Africa herself, Jolie prefers the palm oil from Ghana, and suggests that the palm oils from Mexico or Southeast Asia, where the plant is not native, tend to be less flavorful.  This may be an advantage for western palates if the native flavor is too strong, but if you want to taste the oil in its pure original form, try the one from Ghana. 

Another factor to consider when purchasing palm oil is the type and location of the plantation where it was grown.  Some plantations, especially the newer ones in tropical areas where the plant is not native, may be endangering the natural local environment when imposed as a cash crop.  If you choose to eat in harmony with nature, then it’s always important to consider the environmental impact of the products you buy.  When selecting your palm oil, be sure to choose one from a sustainable grower.
As far as processing, the traditional cold and chemical-free methods of obtaining the oil yield the most healthy and nutrient-dense products.   You can generally find the processing information on the label, but you can also tell by appearance:  When minimally processed, the palm oil separates into distinct beads in its solid state.  Like coconut oil, palm oil alternately hardens and liquifies with changes in ambient temperature.  This is normal and natural and does not effect the quality or nutritional value of the oil.  
Palm oil, like coconut oil, comes from the fruit of the tree.  Before extracting the oil, the palm fruit is first made into a pulp, butter, or cream.  This lovely cream is also a wonderful culinary and health product by itself.  To give us an idea of the epicurean applications of palm cream, Jolie passed around a small sample of plain warm tomato sauce followed by another sample enhanced with the palm cream.  The difference was amazing and delectable!  The palm cream added a thickness, richness, and savory flavor to the sauce.  Tasting the sauce made me want to go stock up on palm cream right away!
Jolie also enlightened us about another product that comes from the same tree:  Palm sugar.  Like maple sugar, palm sugar is derived from the sap of the tree, after it has been tapped from the trunk.  When properly processed to maintain minerals and enzymes, palm sugar makes a great choice for a healthy sweetener.
About half way through her presentation, for all those who donated, Jolie offered a plate of traditional West African food, including soaked fava beans, chicken on the bone stewed in the tomato sauce with palm cream, and some freshly prepared African yam.  While the group was enjoying this traditional West African dinner, Jolie also took the opportunity to tell us about the African yam and discuss another important tuber, the cassava root.  Cassava is just another name for that popular Central American and Caribbean food, the yucca.   This famous tuber is in fact known by many different names, depending on the area where it’s grown.  Most notably, cassava is used to make tapioca, a product that is rapidly gaining in popularity due to the rising demand for gluten-free products.  For comparison, Jolie held up cassava/yucca root next to the African yam, and you could see the similarities.  
By the end of her presentation, our group of full and happy diners enjoyed several interesting discussions including one on gluten-free products, another on eating locally, and another on eating in harmony with your ancestry.
Many thanks to Jolie for an inspiring and tasty presentation!  It’s great to learn as much as we can about traditional foods and preparation methods from all over the world!  For more information on palm oil, see the links I’ve posted below, and be sure to check back in a few days for Jolie’s tropical fruits & oils shopping list.
See you next month!  And until we meet again, try adding some palm oil or palm cream to your cooking! 
Your Chapter Leader,
~ Karen


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