The coconut might have been given a bad reputation, but there are many reasons why you shouldn't villify it
Discarding traditional food wisdom to adopt market driven food options is one of the reasons behind malnutrition of various kind: yes, malnutrition is literally bad nutrition, not only under nourishment. When the food industry decided to push so-called “healthy” fats and oils, in the form of highly processed polyunsaturated oils, coconut oil was made out to be a big culprit. Yet for generations, in many food cultures, including regions in South India, South and South-East Asia and the Polynesian islands, people used coconut and its oil and remained healthy.
The origins of coconut are debated; however, some of the oldest fossils of the coconut as it exists today have been found in India and Australia. So, even though it may not be native to India, coconut has been part of our biodiversity for millennia.
Most parts of this amazingly multi-purpose gift of nature can be used: the fruit itself yields oil; one that has been found to be a panacea. The meat of the fruit is eaten as such or used for cooking or extracting milk. The water of the tender coconut is full of rehydrating electrolytes and potassium. This apart, the fibrous husk gives us coir and some use the hard shell as a fuel.
If you are wondering why such a seemingly awesome fruit got bad press, the answer is simple: a reductionist mindset which condemned it because of its high saturated fat content, without bothering to find out what was happening to people who had been consuming it over centuries. It suited them to harp on the high saturated fat content and thus pave the way for other industrially processed oils. Luckily, some scientists with a more open mind did take into consideration traditional food preferences and carried out a neutral research; thanks to them we now have some very useful insights.
Actually, most oils and fats contain long chain fatty acids that have a negative impact on health as they clog arteries, being stored as fat by the body. They also impact LDL cholesterol levels. Coconut oil, on the other hand, contains over 50 per cent medium chain fatty acids (mcfa) that the body metabolises into energy instead of storing as fat. What a boon for dieters and athletes! What is even more remarkable than this is the fact that one of these fatty acids happens to be lauric acid, which is also found in mother’s milk.
You might want to know why lauric acid is so special: to start with, it enhances brain function as well as the immune system. Monolaurin, into which the body converts lauric acid, is antiviral, antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal; it, therefore, destroys many disease-causing organisms, protecting the body from infections and viruses. It also combats fungal infections. Such remarkable qualities could not be left unexploited by the nutraceutical industry which developed supplements of this fatty acids; on the whole, coconut oil is deemed to kill viruses causing flu, herpes and measles, to name but a few. It has been observed that it has helped protect the body from cancers such as breast and colon cancers. The proof of the pudding is in the eating so consume coconut in its various avatars to benefit from all its life enhancing gifts which also includes vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5, B6 as well as various minerals such as iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and copper.
Let us now enter the kitchen and see its culinary properties. As oil, coconut oil is very well behaved. It has a high smoking point and as such, good for cooking at high temperature. It also remains stable, like its counterpart, mustard oil, after having been used once, which means it is reusable, unlike industrially processed oils that get altered at high temperatures. These traits, therefore, make coconut oil perfect for deep-frying.
On its own, coconut meat is a wonderfully addictive snack to satiate hunger pangs without making us feel guilty. Shredded coconut can also be added to raitas, salads (both savoury and sweet), fudges, chocolates, ice-creams, dosas… And of course how can one bypass the chutneys! Coconut milk and cream, prepared from freshly shredded coconut meat, lend a gourmet touch to many a prawn, fish or vegetable curry, evolved in coastal regions across India and other tropical countries.
From helping to relieve acid reflux and absorption of vitamins to contributing to our well-being by controlling various diseases, coconut can clearly stake its claim as being a remarkable super food which does not stop at that since its cosmetic uses for skin and hair are also well known and proven. So, raise a toast to the coconut!
Flavoured coconut oil dip
Combine 31/2 tbsp of coconut oil, 2 tbsp finely chopped onions, 2-3 garlic cloves, minced, 1/2 tsp each basil, oregano and paprika and salt together; heat till simmering point and remove from fire. Use to dip bread or pour over pasta.
Coconut flavoured potatoes
Dice about half a kilo potatoes; heat 3 tbsp coconut oil in deep pan; add potatoes, stirring off and on till nearly done; add 2 tbsp ground poppy seeds, 1 tbsp desiccated coconut, salt as desired, a pinch of sugar and 2-3 chopped green chillies; cook till potatoes are done. Serve with rice or chappatis.
World-renowned seed activist Vandana Shiva and Navdanya Director Maya Goburdhun believe in the power of local superfoods. Navdanya is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge, culture and forgotten foods