Healthy and Safe

From fried savouries to baked sweets, palm oil proves its versatility in cooking.

PALM oil, a vegetable oil from the fruit (pulp) of the oil palm tree (Elaesis guineensis), is one of the most popular edible oils in the world.

Palm oil, which is bright yellow/orange, is healthy and is one of the few vegetable oils relatively high in saturated fats. It also contains natural carotenoids, vitamin E, phytosterols (which prevent cholesterol absorption) and squalene, another powerful antioxidant.

The oil’s natural resistance to oxidation makes it a healthier and safer oil for cooking or deep-frying, even though some of the oil’s antioxidants are destroyed in the cooking. Boiling palm oil for a few minutes may destroy the carotenoids or pigments, rendering the oil colourless.

However, palm oil is said to be at least 10 times better for cooking than olive oil.

Palm oil, particularly virgin or “red” palm oil, has been a part of the human diet for at least 5,000 years. It was prized by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt as a sacred food.

Originating from Africa, palm oil is used widely all over the world and is an important crop in South-East Asia, West Africa and South America.

Like all vegetable oils, palm kernel oil and palm oil do not contain cholesterol although saturated fat intake increases both LDL and HDL cholesterol.

Rohani Jelani, cookbook author and highly respected culinary instructor, is fully aware of the benefits of palm oil. At Bayan Indah, her cooking school in Damansara, Petaling Jaya, palm oil is used in many of her dishes.

“It’s a clean, tasteless oil and works very well with frying as it does not break down easily when heated to high temperatures. Palm oil is good as it does not impart any flavour to food,” she says in an email interview.

Rohani is a graduate of London’s Le Cordon Bleu, and besides teaching dedicated locals and foreigners how to cook iconic Malaysian cuisine, she also organises special events at her cooking school for companies, associations and groups of friends and family.

With several cookbooks (published by Periplus) to her credit, she also contributes to magazines and newspapers. Rohani is sought-after by top international food companies to develop recipes and training. The training standard ranges from casual cooks all the way up to professionals in top hotels/restaurants and MasterChef winners from around the world.

Rohani has developed 12 new recipes using palm oil in a recipe booklet for the July issue of Flavours, the food and lifestyle magazine of Star Publications (M) Bhd.

The booklet features a variety of recipes and she has used palm oil in traditional dishes – sambals, curries, rice dishes, and snacks – and even in cakes and cookies!

“Palm oil is an extremely versatile oil. Unlike, say, peanut or olive oil, it does not have a dominant flavour, which in many ways, works in its favour. Because it is ‘neutral’, there is no limit to the different cuisines it can be suitable for – you can use palm oil in Indian curries, Malay sambals, Chinese stir-fries or Nyonya curries.

“There is no reason not to use it in Western-style dishes either – drizzle it over a roast or use it to pan-fry or sauté fish, chicken, potatoes or vegetables,” suggests Rohani.

“Although deep-frying is nowadays almost a dirty word, I have to confess that I am not opposed to the occasional deep-fried dish. To be honest, this is where palm oil truly shines. If I were to make fritters or fried chicken, palm oil would be my first choice because it stays stable at high temperatures and results in crisp, and believe it or not, non-greasy food!”

For health reasons, one should use palm oil for deep-frying only up to three times and no more, insists Rohani.

“It’s a relatively inexpensive oil and most households can afford it, as opposed to using a much more expensive oil which people would then try their best to ‘stretch’ by using over and over and over again.”

Palm (fruit) oil contains a variety of fats, vitamins and nutrients, but no trans fatty acids (present pre-dominantly in hydrogenated oils). Several studies have implicated trans fatty acids in increasing the risk of cancer, interfering with fat metabolism, enhancing fatty deposits in the arteries, and reducing the body’s ability to rid itself of carcinogens, drugs and other toxins.

Trans fat is the common name for unsaturated fat with trans-isomer (E-isomer) fatty acid(s). Trans fats exist in nature but also occur during the processing of polyunsaturated fatty acids in food production.

The consumption of trans fats increases the risk of coronary heart disease by raising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.

Palm oil is said to provide the same “hard or solid” fat for pastries, cookies, crackers and other items that require long shelf stability, a particular mouth feel or texture. An odourless and tasteless oil, it is “perfect” for consumers and manufacturers looking for a healthy oil for cooking and baking.

Palm oil, according to Rohani, can be used for certain cakes and cookies. It may also be in the form of margarine, which is made from palm oil.

“Margarine used to have a bad name because it was made with hydrogenated fats which have been blamed for causing heart disease. But enlightened manufacturers have taken these concerns seriously and many of the better brands of margarine are now made without the use of hydrogenated fats,” she says.

All margarines – whether for baking, spreading and cooking – by Lam Soon Edible Oils Sdn. Bhd, for instance, do not have hydrogenated fats which can create trans fats that are not healthy for the body.

Cholesterol-free red palm oil is also a healthy cooking and salad oil rich in natural carotenes, Vitamin E, Vitamin K and Co-enzyme Q10. It can also be used to make biscuits, noodles, margarine, mayonnaise, salad dressings and health foods.

“For salads, use oil such as Carotino (red palm oil) as it is healthier and carries the dressing flavours well. It also has a nice colour which an imaginative cook can use well,” says Rohani.

Some people are a little put off by red palm oil but the recent trend of moving away from trans fats in the West has benefited palm oil tremendously.

Anti-palm oil campaigns (especially abroad) fall on deaf ears here as they are untrue.

Rohani says, “Malaysians know the truth and just ignore the smears. Most of them shrug their shoulders and order another plate of fried food!”

Sambal Udang

20g dried chillies

150g shallots, sliced

5g shrimp paste (belacan)

100ml water

90ml red or palm cooking oil

300g (cleaned weight) medium-sized prawns, shelled and de-veined

1 onion, sliced into rings

½ tsp tamarind, seeds discarded, squeezed and mixed with 80ml water

½ tsp salt or to taste

1 tbsp sugar or to taste

Snip dried chillies into 2cm lengths and soak in hot water for 20 minutes until soft and plump. Rinse and drain in a colander, discarding most of the seeds.

Combine chillies, shallots, shrimp paste and water in an electric blender and blend to a fine paste. Transfer contents to a small bowl.

Heat oil in a wok and add the blended chilli paste. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is well cooked and oil surfaces, about 15 minutes.

Add prawns, sliced onion and tamarind extract. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes or until prawns are firm.

Season to taste with salt and sugar. Take pan off the heat.

Source: The Star

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