By Surani Perera
Sri Lanka has a history of producing coconut oil since ancient times. Most of the traditional and popular food preparations incorporate a degree of coconut oil; a commodity in big demand throughout the year. The variable quality of the oil available in the market is a matter of concern to all consumers, and various phobias as to its demerits have been expressed.
Traditional oil extraction methods
Decades ago, considerably large estates used a bullock powered method to produce cold-pressed coconut oil in what is known as a sekku. This method is hardly in operation today except in very remote villages, which might have a derelict sekku at most, as various machines invented and patented for oil extraction have superseded the time consuming nature of the traditional method.
At the time of writing, 84-year-old Flavia Wijekoon recalled how fifty years ago coconut oil was made at her homestead in Kelaniya. “Since ours was a small estate we didn’t have a sekku. That could be found [those days] in the main coconut growing areas of Negombo and further up. We would scrape the coconut and boil it in water. We did this several times until the oil rose to the top.”
Wijekoon went on to say that in those days they never went to the store to purchase their oil requirements as all of it was obtained from the oil they made at home.
There are two main methods of oil extraction that are used getting the oil from coconut kernels, known as the dry and wet process. What Wijekoon describes above is a wet extraction process that consumes more time than the average citizen can devote today.
The Ceylon Today uncovered a less time consuming process that still lives up to all of coconut oil’s healthful benefits. From a visit to a “Kapruka purawara” event at the Don Bosco estate in Divulapitiya, Gampaha District, we bring to your home a method of dry coconut oil extraction that offers yesterday’s goodness within today’s comfort.
Large scale oil extraction method
On exhibit at the “Kapruka purawara” was a mass scale oil expeller machine that looks pretty boring and generally unattractive. It’s difficult to think that this amalgamation of metal rods and barrel bits can motivate itself to produce a viable coconut oil. The coconut flesh or kernel is cut and dried in an electric machine. It is then sent through another electric apparatus thrice over until the solid remnants become almost fodder-like.
On location, this dark brown animal feed for cows was still warm, and had a crispy biscuity feel to it—easily crumbling when held in your closed palm and pressurized.
This oil has a slight yellow colour to it and is commonly available in the market as copra oil. However, the yellow colour varies as some copra oil is adulterated and made substandard with palm oil so it can be sold at a cheaper price. Its health effects however are far from cheap.
Director Processing of the Coconut Development Authority Vasantha Liyanage said “we are working with the ministry to reduce the availability of substandard copra oil in the market. From time to time we conduct in-house tests on samples of coconut oil that are available in the market, and we raid places that sell the unhealthy composition of oil.”
Chandima Bandara who owns and operates a large scale extraction machine said, “This type of machine is quite economical. You can collect 750 ml of oil by putting in one kilo of copra. However, the shelf life of that bottle of oil is very little as it contains the easily putrefying coconut dregs as well. But once you filter this out, it can be kept without spoiling for almost 20 days.”
Handmade hand-held machine coconut oil
As we arrived at the exhibition venue a lot of people were crowded around the stall next to the electric apparatus so we were glad to see it empty now. As we chatted with the middle aged C.A Wijesundara we learnt that he had been working in the coconut industry for 15 years. Sporting a curly mop of salt and pepper hair and decked in light blue shirt and modern dark blue jeans, the slim Wijesundara explained that you have to first scrape the coconut and layer it thinly to dry in the sun during the scorching mid-day heat. “It is important to dry the scraped coconut in the sun as heating it would render it to caramelization at 6 degrees of Celsius.”
Once this first step is done with, Wijesundara said it was equally important to test the quality of the copra by pressing dry bits between your finger tips. He said that “if it oozes out colourless oil then you can be satisfied that it has been dried perfectly. This means that the copra has less than 8-10 per cent water in it and is thus good for oil extraction.”
He fed this dry copra in to a cylindrical apparatus that can be easily fixed to a table top, and pushed down the lid a little to let some oil out from the pores in the walls of the steel container. He continued to fill in the copra and press down more vigorously. However, a 12-year-old child too can do this as it doesn’t require as much strength as trying to squeeze string hoppers out of the mould.
The colourless liquid you collect here in this dry extraction method is called virgin coconut oil. It certainly had a wonderful aroma and even wet my appetite just thinking about it while writing this article back at work. I never knew that simple oil could be so flavourful to the nostrils as to evoke a sense of gastronomy.
“The oil obtained this way is a bit more expensive than copra oil as one kilo of scraped coconut will give you only 300 ml of virgin coconut oil”, Wijesundara reiterated.
Liyanage who was standing at the scene said while rubbing a bit of oil between his fingers, “coconut oil is the world’s best cooking oil as it has a unique fatty-acid chain. This virgin coconut oil has all the properties of virgin oils such as virgin olive oil.”
Liyanage went on to say “virgin coconut oil has all the antibodies present in mother’s breast milk and people in some countries even use it as an energy drink. You can take a teaspoon of virgin coconut oil in the morning everyday to get all the benefits of this oil.”
Many other noted experts are of the view that virgin coconut oil, unlike other oils, can be re-used for deep frying purposes without causing harmful health effects—due the unique chemistry of its fatty-acid chain.
The Ceylon Today spoke to Prof. Kapila Seneviratne of Kelaniya University, whose recent research on a type of coconut oil extraction method proved to be controversial despite the salient health benefits of it. “The common grain of thought against coconut oil is that it contains a highly saturated fat content. However, coconut oil, while increasing total cholesterol levels also increases your good cholesterol.”
Of the virgin coconut oil extracted using the above method at home, Prof. Seneviratne said that although most of the research conducted was on the wet extraction method, he found no qualms with this dry method of extraction. “Scraped coconut, dried in air and oil obtained through the hand-handled machine at home, I would assume contains the same benefits as other industrial methods. Most of the companies in Sri Lanka that make virgin coconut oil according to this method export it to foreign countries.”
In 2012, under the Kapruka purawara program, the coconut ministry is initiate 1,000 small scale coconut oil mills in the country to meet the supply and demand for coconut oil. Liyanage points out that once the oil is produced and is freely available in the market, this would deter the adulteration of coconut oil.
The ministry envisions the sustainability of this sector as a cottage industry since the running costs will be very much lower than the operation of it at a larger scale.
So in the near future you can expect Ceylon inhabitants to go nutty once again over our staple coconuts. One thing we have learnt living in an island is to take our coconuts seriously!