Red palm oil is not a trendy food for West Africans. This vegetable oil, with a distinctive taste and colour, forms an integral part of the diet in the region. It is known as “epo pupa” in Yoruba language, “nkwu” in Igbo and zomi in Ghana.
What Is Red Palm Oil?
Palm oil is derived from the fruits of the African oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. It has a red/orangey colour and could go from semi-solid to very viscous at room temperature. Cooking palm oil is mildly processed, and when added to food, it gives it a yellowish or orange colour. This oil should not be confused with palm kernel oil.
Red palm oil is extracted from the flesh of the orange colour fruits of the oil palm. Palm kernel oil, on the other hand, is the clear oil extracted from the kernel, which is the seed enclosed within the fruit. Palm kernel oil is different from palm oil, and is used as frying oil as well as for non-food applications like cosmetics and cream production.
What is palm oil used for? Is it safe for cooking?
Red palm fruit oil is an essential component of many dishes in West Africa and has been used in traditional cooking from time immemorial. In addition, it is stable during heating which makes it an excellent cooking and frying oil.
The oil is versatile; it adds colour, texture and aroma to food. The simplest way cooking palm oil is used is directly on cooked food like yam, plantain and cocoyam.
It is usually added to a lot of soups, sauces and beans dishes during cooking. Red red, cassava leaf stew, egusi soup, ayamase, krain krain and yam porridge are dishes which would not be complete without adding red palm oil.
For some recipes, palm oil is bleached slightly by heating. Bleached palm oil loses some of its red colour, but it imparts a distinct nutty flavour revered in dishes like ayamase and ofada sauce.
What does it taste like?
I have read a few articles describing palm oil as a bland oil. This would explain the taste of refined palm oil, but definitely not cooking palm fruit oil.
Unrefined palm oil has a rich, earthy, slightly nutty taste and distinct aroma with an oily mouthfeel. This is more noticeable when the oil has not been cooked, which is also part of its appeal in African cooking.
Is palm oil healthy?
Cooking palm oil has a lot of health benefits. The orange-red colour is due to the presence of carotenoids, a mixture of alpha and beta carotenes. Carotenoids are pigments in plants, which can be found in orange fruits and vegetables like squashes, carrots etc. Carotenoids are vitamin A precursors which can be converted to vitamin A in the body. Therefore, red palm oil is an essential source of vitamin A in West African communities.
Palm oil is rich in tocotrienols and tocopherols, which are sources of vitamin E. It is also a rich source of antioxidants, so some people consider it a superfood.
Palm oil contains both saturated and mono-unsaturated oils but no trans fats. The saturated in red palm oil is rich in “good” cholesterol (HDL cholesterol), which is associated with lower rates of heart diseases.
Although red palm oil is healthy, like most oils, it still needs to be eaten in moderation.
Difference Between Refined And Unrefined Palm Oil
The red palm oil used for cooking is mostly still produced at artisanal levels. The palm fruits are steamed to release the oil and then pressed to extract it. The resulting red palm oil is neither bleached nor refined.
On the other hand, the more popular commercial palm oil has been refined and processed into a clear and odourless oil. This oil can be found in everything, from soaps, creams and conditioners to biscuits, ice cream and ready meals.
Unrefined red palm oil maintains its nutritional content. Whereas refined oils are stripped of their nutritional contents; and are mainly used for their functional properties.
African Palm Oil & Sustainability
The sustainability issues with oil palms that we hear so much about arise from the demand for refined palm oil. There is so much demand for the product which is used at such large scales, that habitats are being destroyed to plant oil palm trees. Furthermore, our growing consumption of cheaply manufactured goods and processed foods does not help the situation. This article by Yewande Komolafe sums up the issue.
In West Africa, oil palm trees are cultivated by small farmers and are an essential part of the local economy in regions where they are grown. Asides from palm oil and palm kernel oil, the locals, get a range of products from the palm tree, like extraction of palm wine from the sugary sap. The cake residue from oil processing is used for kindling fire and the palm fronds are used for making roofs and fences.
Where Can I Buy Palm Oil
You can buy red palm oil in African and Asian grocery stores. You can also buy it on Amazon.
Red Palm Oil Recipes
Here are some of my favourite recipes using palm oil...
Nice to read about unrefined palm oil and its properties. It emphasizes that there are no simple stories about palm oil and its impacts and uses and that these differ greatly across the world.
Hi, is there a brand you would recommend that I could get online? It seems they all have naysayers claiming the oils aren't authentic. Thanks!
Hi Jenny. I haven't bought palm-oil online, as I tend to by from Asian and African shops. However, on Amazon, I saw a few "unrefined" palm oil, which appear authentic to me. I think the keyword to look out for is "unrefined". I hope this helps.