Palm Oil, A Mixed Blessing

African palm oil — from Elaeis guineensis and used in traditional African cooking — adds a rich red color and  unctuous mouthfeel to many stews and sauces. Rich in beta-carotenes, palm oil contains no trans fats since it is not hydrogenated.

african-oil-palm-drawingUnfortunately, palm oil also packs a huge wallop to the environment because of demand for palm-oil-based biofuels and cosmetics. In other words, large multinational corporations found out about this traditional food. Now rainforests face degradation in increasing numbers, as well as animal extinctions.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, thankfully one of the most prolific chroniclers of nineteenth-century Africa, wrote the following passage about red palm oil; note the disparaging comments about the taste of food that he found strange …

The Elaeis Guiniensis, locally called mchikichi, which is known by the Arabs to grow in the Islands of Zanzibar and Pemba and more rarely in the mountains of Usagara, springs apparently uncultivated in large dark groves on the shores of the Tanganyika, where it hugs the margin, rarely growing at any distance inland. The bright-yellow drupe, with shiny purple-black point, though nauseous to the taste, is eaten by the people. The Mawezi, or palm-oil, of the consistency of honey, rudely extracted, forms an article of considerable traffic in the regions about the lake. This is the celebrated extract whose various official uses in Europe have already begun to work a social transformation in W. Africa. The people of Ujiji separate by pounding the oily sarcocarpium from the one seed of the drupe, boil it for some hours, allow the floating substance to coagulate, and collect it in large earthen pots. The price is usually about one doti of white cotton for thirty-five pounds, and the people generally demand salt in exchange for it from caravans. This is the “oil of a red color” which, according to Mr. Cooley, is brought by the Wanyamwezi “from the opposite of southwestern side of the lake.” Despite its sickly flavor, it is universally used in cooking, and forms the only unguent and lamp-oil in the country.
(From The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration, Chapter XIII — “At Length We Sight the Lake Tanganyika, The ‘Sea of Ujiji’ “)

Processing palm oil at the village level demands much time and energy, as the following 2-part photo essay on the African oil palm shows (See part 2 — “Palm Oil Processing” —  on May 8, 2009):

African Oil Palm (Photo credit: Geoff Leeming)
African Oil Palm (Photo credit: Geoff Leeming)
African Oil Palm Forest
African Oil Palm Forest
African Oil Palm Seeds Harvested in Tanzania (Photo credit: John Friel)
African Oil Palm Seeds Harvested in Tanzania (Photo credit: John Friel)
African Oil Palm Seeds (Photo credit: One Village Initiative)
African Oil Palm Seeds (Photo credit: One Village Initiative)
African Oil Palm Fruits
African Oil Palm Fruits
Initial processing of African Oil Palm Fruits (Photo credit: One Village Initiative)
Initial processing of African Oil Palm Fruits (Photo credit: One Village Initiative)
Young Plantation of African Oil Palms (Photo credit: Angela Sevin)
Young Plantation of African Oil Palms (Photo credit: Angela Sevin)

This is my 300th post! How about that?!

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