There are two ways of making coconut cooking oil. There is a dry process whereby the coconut flesh (the copra) is dried and pressed to extract the oil from it. Overall this is very efficient as it removes pretty much all the oil content - almost two thirds of the raw weight of the copra, and the drying process can be by smoking, in a kiln or simply in the sun. There is also a wet process where the meat of the kernal is shredded and mixed with water to make coconut milk and then the oil is extracted from that. Both these processes give raw coconut oil which is not generally considered fit for consumption - although it may be used for cosmetic purposes.
Once the oil is extracted then at the very least it must be heated and filtered to be made fit for cooking. More usually the oil is Refined, Bleached and Deodourized (known as RBD); somewhat perversly this is often called 'Pure Coconut Oil'. Unlike the raw coconut oil, this coconut cooking oil has little or no smell of coconut.
The oil can then be hydrogenated (bombarded with hydrogen atoms), this saturates the few unsaturated fats in the oil. This intent of this is primarily to raise the melting point of the oil to make it more suitable for some of its uses - e.g. making chocolate.
Coconut oil is composed primarily of saturated fats - about 90%, although it's a strange beast because the fats that it contains are medium or short chain fats rather than the longer chains in most saturated fats, and they are digested differently. So a further process that can be applied is that the oil can also be 'fractionated'. Basically this means removing the medium chain fats and leaving only the short chain fats. This gives a product which is liquid at room temperature (raw coconut oil is a white solid) and which is more stable and much less likely to go off.
At the end of all that, the product you are most likely to by to cook Indian food is 'Pure Coconut Oil' which is a white solid which then melts into a clear liquid at 24C. It has a high smoke point, and is very heat stable.
The coconut and all its products have been used and revered for about the last 4000 years, and are documented as both medecine and food in Sanskit documents dating from as early as 1500BC. The use of coconut oil in the Indian subcontinent and indeed most of tropical Asia is widespread. It's usage was documented and favourably commented on by the European explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries
Its use in the west was also very common, being used for frying and in baking. Unfortunately, in the 1960's, reports were published linking saturated fats to heart disease and its usage declined. It is now becoming apparent that this was all a massive scam by, initially, the American corn oil industry, who demonized all opposition in order to promote the sales of its own products. There is increasing evidence that far, from being the bad guys, saturated fats are actually good for you. Coconut cooking oil in particular, with its medium chain fats, is now deemed to be very healthy.
This is used predominantly in Southern India, Sri Lanka and Goa where it is usually used for frying and sometimes as a flavouring ingredient. It imparts a lovely smooth well, coconutty taste.
I use coconut cooking oil in dishes like Meen Molee and as well as really complimenting the taste of this dish, it cooks fish really nicely.
The only slight pain with coconut cooking oil is that it is solid at room temperature but (weirdly) comes in a normal bottle so you have to run it under the hot tap to melt some of the oil .
Coconut cooking oil is a mixture of fatty acids with either short or medium length chains (chains of carbon atoms). Where long chain fats need bile salts to emulify them and make them useful to the body, all the fats in coconut oil can be absorbed directly.
The thing to avoid is hydrogenated coconut oil - look for 'pure' 'virgin' or 'raw' coconut oil.
About 50% of 'pure' (not hydrogenated) coconut oil is lauric acid, this is converted by the body into monolaurin which has anti bacterial, anti fungal and anti viral properties. It can destroy the lipid membrane of viruses like HIV, measles, herpes, influenza. Lauric acid a main component of human breast milk and is currently under investigation in treating AIDS.
Another 7% of coconut oil is capric acid, which is also an anti microbial agent.
There are tiny bits is vitamins E and K in there but other than that no vitamins or minerals so don't even look for them.
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