Illustration by Stefanie Wong.
Until moving from Nigeria to the United States for university, I’d only known palm oil to be a culinary hero. With its buttery texture and subtle earthy sweetness, it’s a heavy hitter in the same category as fermented locust beans, grains of selim and ataare—all of which are among a vast array of seasonings that add a distinctly West African flavour to my favourite meals. They are ingredients that carry a sense of familiarity, intimacy and genuine flavour complexity to an otherwise ordinary dish. Peppersoup, without the distinct spice combination unique to each household—the slow rising heat of alligator pepper, for example, or the bright herbiness of scent leaf—is merely a spicy broth with meat and vegetable. Perfectly delicious, I’m sure, but not at all the right potion to quench a bout of homesickness.
As an undergraduate student in the U.S., I’d often come across many student demonstrations on campus calling for palm oil boycotts. I was confused at the time to learn that palm oil is a villain in the story of impending climate catastrophe: Large-scale palm oil production is directly linked to the destruction of rainforests, which negatively affects some of the most biodiverse ecosystems and habitats of endangered species. It’s also been over a decade since I learned that palm oil is a crucial ingredient in more than just my favourite childhood meals. Because of its versatility and efficiency as a crop, palm oil is used to produce cosmetics, detergents, processed foods and biodiesel.
It’s still odd to me to think of this gorgeous and delicious oil that stains most things it touches—many plastic containers have been permanently dyed reddish-orange from storing palm oil–heavy foods, many shirts have had to be bleached—as the same thing found in toothpaste, shampoo or even peanut butter.
I’m still in love with palm oil, though. Not because I would like to ignore facts in order to enjoy my guilty pleasures in peace or because I don’t care about orangutans and other endangered species. I truly do. I’m still in love with it because I understand that the problem isn’t palm oil and its various potential uses. The massive scale in which it’s harvested and refined and all the harrowing ways that the environment and workers are exploited in the process are more about the capitalist proliferation of everything and much less about palm oil itself.
Though it’s fairly labour-intensive, you can extract palm oil at home by simply boiling palm nut fruits until they soften. Grind the cooked palm nuts until you have an oily, fibrous mush. Afterward, strain the mush through a fine sieve until you have palm nut fruit juice. Boil down the juice until the fat rises over the water. Collect the fat off the surface, discard the remaining liquid and there you have it: palm oil.
I know this because I’ve done it. At home, my grandmother has tall oil palm trees outside the house. She likes to eat boiled yams with palm oil that has been warmed gently and salted generously. She taught me to prepare this simple meal when I was quite young. Boiled yams are easy; you peel and slice the tuber into manageable chunks. (Be careful not to handle the sticky insides of the peels with bare hands for too long, as they contain calcium oxalate, potentially causing a horrible skin itch that is more annoying than worrisome.) Toss the yams in a pot and fill with water, just enough to cover them, add salt to taste, then bring to boil for about 20 minutes, or until the yams are fork-tender. Next, pour as much palm oil as you’d like into a saucepan and warm on low heat. My grandmother likes only a small amount of this rich red oil, so consider that you may not need very much per serving.
Palm oil thickens when cool; it is almost solid at room temperature. There is a sweet spot when heating up palm oil to eat with yams; it’s somewhere between warming up to liquid and bleaching at its smoke point.
My grandmother likes to serve the yams piled onto a plate and the oil thoroughly salted in a small bowl. She dips the yam in oil before each bite, but you are welcome to simply pour the silken oil over the plate and enjoy the starchy comfort. With help, we harvested the fruit in small amounts and made our own palm oil.
This was not an unusual thing growing up where I’m from, and I don’t believe it’s uncommon for many people in many places to access food and resources from their surroundings. This is how we’ve survived; so much of everything else we consume is as a result of exploited animals, people and environments. Honeybees come to mind, as do pesticides, industrial livestock production, labour exploitation and border imperialism. Since no single thing is the villain—whole systems churn out many ways to exploit many things—we can only choose from the options available. These days, I choose to enjoy palm oil sourced as ethically as possible and think of my grandmother often.
Francesca Ekwuyasi is the author of Butter Honey Pig Bread. She lives in Halifax.
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