Cooking sumptuous feast with palm oil

As families gather for Chinese New Year reunion dinners, a housewife tells OOI TEE CHING that the traditional dishes are best prepared with palm cooking oil.

NGAI Wai Heng, a Cantonese, learnt to prepare sumptuous Hakka meals when she married Yee Yon Fah, the eldest son of a Hakka family. 

Ngai, still living with her 90-year-old mother-in-law Thye Mooi Ying, explained that it is normal for the wife to follow and adopt the culture of the husband's family.

The traditional Hakka reunion dishes that Ngai showcased when met in the presence of her still-discerning mother-in-law were ju geok chu (vinegar pork trotters), son pan ji (yam abacus beads) and kao ngiuk (sliced pork belly pot roast).

Both the meat dishes that Ngai prepared are meant to symbolise abundance and prosperity. 

"There is a saying, 'yao yu, yao yuk', which means that there must be fish and meat on the table. That is what abundance is about," she told Business Times in Petaling Jaya recently.

"There are many popular Hakka dishes served during reunion dinners and the selection is very much each family's taste," said Ngai's husband Yee.

In his family, Yee said the son pan ji is a requisite Hakka dish eaten during major festivals, especially during Chinese New Year, because of its auspicious connotation that means wealth.

The yam dumplings are shaped to resemble Chinese abacus beads - a traditional calculator for one to count wealth. 

To prepare the dish, the mashed yam and tapioca starch are kneaded into a dough before it is cut into bead shapes and boiled in water. The cooked pieces are then stir-fried with shallots, minced pork, dried shrimp, cuttlefish, sliced chilli and chopped parsley.

Ngai noted that she has been using palm oil for cooking for as long as she can remember because she finds this variant most suitable for stir-fry and deep-fry. 

In fact, it was Thye who started using palm cooking oil in the 1970s to prepare meals when it became an alternative to the traditional but less healthy lard used by Chinese families. 

Palm oil is able to withstand stir-fry heat better than other vegetable oils like olive, soyabean, corn, canola and sunflower. 

"Palm oil can be better used for cooking at higher temperatures than other oils. Also, I find it very suitable when I do not want the flavour of .... say, for example, olive oil," Ngai said as she flips the slightly chewy and bouncy son pan ji in her wok.

She was surprised to learn that while palm oil is the cheapest cooking oil in the world, it is nutritionally comparable to olive oil. 

When it comes to keeping her cooking oils fresh, Ngai said whether it is palm oil, sesame oil or sunflower oil, they do not last forever. 

So, what happens when cooking oil goes bad? Used cooking oil can turn rancid after a month or two, affecting the taste and quality of the food. 

Ngai said she places her array of cooking oils in a dark cupboard, away from heat. "If you have oils that you do not use frequently, consider buying smaller bottles and marking the bottle with the date it was opened," she said.

Nutritionally balanced and contains no cholesterol
UK-BASED food technology expert Kurt G. Berger said over the course of his research of more than 50 years, many people are unduly suspicious of palm oil, an ingredient many are still unfamiliar with. He tells Business Times in an interview that once the functional and economic advantages of this "more natural product" are explained, people will become more confident of the health benefits of palm oil in their daily diet. 

Q: Why does palm cooking oil sometimes turn "cloudy"? Is the oil still safe for consumption? 
A: Palm oil becomes jelly-like and cloudy when stored in the fridge, when all the other major vegetable oils remain liquid. This is due to its 50 per cent content saturated acids, mainly palmitic and stearic. 
More importantly, the other half of palm oil's fat content is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated - known to increase HDL, the "good cholesterol", and can benefit the cardiovascular system. 
Unlike other vegetable oils grown in temperate countries, palm oil contains the whole spectrum of Vitamin E, minerals, antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Its deep orange hue shows it is packed with beta-carotene, a Vitamin A variant. 

Q: What is the world's most consumed oil? 
A: Today, palm oil is consumed by three billion people across 150 countries. Palm oil is mainly consumed as cooking oil. It is also the main ingredient of margarine and shortening. Last year, leading industry journal Oil World showed that global consumption of vegetable oils is around 180 million tonnes. 
Of that volume, palm oil accounted for 30 per cent of the global market share, while rivals like soyabean oil only command 24 per cent and canola 13 per cent.

Q: Is palm oil less nutritious than other more expensive cooking oils? 
A: Palm oil is nutritionally balanced. One tablespoon of palm cooking oil contains 120 calories and 13.6g of fat. With a balanced combination of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats, palm oil is made up of 44 per cent oleic, 10 per cent linoleic, 40 per cent palmitic and five per cent stearic acids. 
While palm oil is the cheapest cooking oil in the world, it is nutritionally comparable to olive oil. It is packed with carotenes such as beta-carotene and lycopene - the same nutrients that give tomatoes, carrots and papaya their reddish-orange colour. 
Palm oil has the richest natural source of the supervitamin E called tocotrienols. Olive oil does not contain any carotenes or tocotrienols, yet it is cleverly marketed as being heart healthy. 

Q: How well is palm oil digested? 
A: Once consumed, palm oil does not remain intact in our stomach for long. Once the enzyme pancreatic lipase comes into contact with the fats we consume, it breaks down the fat molecules into fatty acids and mono-glycerides, which are then absorbed by our intestines. 
Palm cooking oil and margarine are 95 to 97 per cent digestible, which falls within the range of 93 to 99 per cent for most edible oils and fats. 

Q: Does palm cooking oil contain cholesterol? 
A: Like all vegetable oils, palm oil does not contain cholesterol. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administrator has allowed palm-based products sold under the Smart Balance brand (containing up to 50 per cent palm oil and 50 per cent local oils) to carry the US patented label "To help increase HDL (good cholesterol) and improve the cholesterol ratio (HDL/LDL)".