Coconut oil is made from ...
Not exactly breaking news, I know, but we don't often think about where the most basic of our kitchen staples come from. By now olives harvested from trees and pressed into oil is a well-trod story. But what is vegetable oil made from, exactly? How do you get oil from corn? And what is canola, anyway?
All worthy musings, but today it's the humble coconut to which we turn our attention. On Bali we spent a couple days watching, cooking with, and photographing two local cooks. Ibu Nengah and her husband are renowned for their kitchen prowess; they're hired by folks in the area to prepare feasts for weddings, birthdays, and other festive occasions. One morning they showed us how to make coconut oil. Ibu Nengah says that, time allowing, they prefer to make their own oil because what they can purchase at the store just can't match the homemade version for flavor and fragrance.
The coconut oil-making process is relatively simple, if time-consuming. It starts, unsurprisingly, with coconut meat, here grated by hand with a nifty tool that consists of a board sprouting rows of nails. Actually this homemade grater reduces fresh coconut into fine shreds much more quickly and efficiently than a Western-style metal grater.
Hot water is added to the grated coconut, and the mixture is stirred until it cools, at which point the coconut is squeezed - hard! - to get it to release as much 'milk' as possible.
This is the first pressing; more hot water is added to the squeezed coconut meat and the process is repeated. Three coconuts produce about 1.5 liters of coconut milk.
The coconut milk is put over a good-sized fire and is left to boil briskly. Two coins of turmeric are added (and removed about an hour later). The turmeric colors the oil, and Ibu Nengah says it keeps it 'fresh'. It probably adds a bit of flavoring as well, which doesn't much matter because just about every Balinese dish that coconut oil might be used in includes turmeric as an ingredient.
After about an hour foam forms on the liquid's surface yellowish fat starts appearing around its edges of its surface. Ibu Nengah's husband sprinkles water on the coconut milk's surface - to further draw out the oil, he says.
By the time the coconut milk is pulled from the heat (about one and a half hours) it's been reduced in volume by about one half, the foam has dissipated, and its surface is covered with a thin cap of golden oil.
The milk-oil is poured through a mesh strainer to capture foam and any bits of stray coconut meat,
and then returned to the pan and left aside to allow the coconut milk solids to settle. (If you've ever clarified butter these steps will sound familiar.) After about five minutes Ibu Nengha and her husband use small bowls to skim the oil from the surface of the pan.
and transfer it to a smaller, heavier cast-iron wok (above left). What's leftover in the big pan after skimming is set aside.
The smaller pan is placed on the fire for about fifteen minutes. It's removed from the heat spitting and gurgling,
but after just a few minutes the bubbles fade away to reveal nearly clear oil.
Now Ibu Nengha places a plastic mesh cloth over a woven basket, sprinkles it with a bit of grated coconut meat (to create a finer sieve), and scrapes in the mush left in the black pan after the oil's been poured off (above). To this she adds any further oil that's surfaced after the first boiling (below), transferring it to the sieve with a small bowl.
Then she scrapes and presses the mixture with a spoon to retrieve every last drop of oil.
What's left in the basket/mesh sieve is a wickedly unctuous coconut-flavored, slightly nutty sludge. It will be eaten as a sweet snack, just a spoonful at a time (it's delicious but so rich that more than a spoonful is out of the question), or stirred into rice to eat with other dishes.
All that effort and time, and 1.5 liters of coconut milk, yields one small bottle of oil.
But it's by far the best coconut oil we've ever sampled, and the scent that fills the kitchen when I heat it in a pan makes us think of Ibu Nengah and her husband, their tranquil outdoor kitchen, and the clove and coffee tree-swathed hills of northern Bali.