Coconut oil is the trendy health food of the moment. Despite being incredibly high in saturated fats, it’s characterised by middle-length saturated fats which are apparently processed differently by the body compared to butter or lard. It also has a high smoke point that makes it good for frying. Like butter and lard, coconut oil is solid at room temperature in more temperate climes, though melts at around 25 degrees Celsius. Where coconuts grow, coconut oil has always been used as a traditional medicinal product but I’m much more interested in the culinary uses and it’s in South-East Asian countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka where coconut oil is a notable part of the cuisine.
Coconut oil is available in two forms, much as with olive oil: either virgin or extra virgin oil, and “regular” refined oil. Virgin oil is derived from the first and non-mechanised pressing of the coconut flesh, just like with olive oil. First, the coconut flesh is dried, either in the sun or by roasting in a kiln; the resulting copra is then pressed to extract the virgin oil, before mechanical and chemical extraction draws out the additional oil.
Virgin oil has a strong coconut flavour and is the sort of oil you see in little jars in health food shops for £14 each. Refined coconut oil is a lot cheaper (priced comparably with other more unusual oils) and can be found in specialist Indian and South-Asian food shops, but is believed to have all the same health benefits despite lacking the “extra virgin” kudos. The refined coconut oil lacks the strong aroma of virgin coconut oil so it is also much more versatile to cook with, and its high saturated fat content means it has the same rich character as dairy and animal fats, meaning it can enrich curries in the same way as they are often finished with ghee. Alternatively, being solid, coconut oil can also double up as a vegan or lactose-free substitute for butter when making cakes or biscuits.
Whether or not you buy into the supposed health benefits (I’m choosing to leave that debate up to those more experienced on the subject), coconut oil is a great way of adding a bit of richness to dishes or simply as a useful alternative cooking oil.