Oil Palm (Dendê)
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Last update: 02/12/2016
The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a palm tree from Africa that grows well in tropical regions with hot and humid weather. For over 5,000 years, Egyptians have consumed the plant’s oil. From the 15th century, the oil palm was in the reports of the first European visitors to Africa as part of its landscape, habits and popular culture. There the plant received a number of names, such as abobobe, kisside, ade-quoi, dendem and andim. In the Americas, the oil palm was introduced with the slave trade, coming to Brazil in the 17th century.
In terms of the world market, Malaysia is the largest palm oil producer, with about 2.5 million hectares of cultivated area, moving US$9 billion/year and generating more than 250,000 direct jobs in rural areas.
The fruit of the oil palm produces two types of oil that are obtained through the physical processes of pressure and heat: 1) óleo de dendê or óleo de palma (known as ‘palm oil’ on the international market), extracted from the pith, the outside of the fruit; and 2) óleo de palmiste (palm kernel oil), extracted from the seeds of the fruit, which is similar to coconut and babassu oil. Each planted hectare of oil palm produces 0.4 to 0.6 tonnes of oil annually.
Palm oil — because of its consistency and non-rancidity — is suitable for the manufacture of margarine, vegetable fats, breads, cakes, pies, ice cream, chocolate bars, crackers and creams, as well as cooking oils. About 80% of the world production of this oil is intended for some kind of food application. The remaining 20%, represented by palm kernel oil, is used as a raw material in the cosmetic industry in the manufacture of biodegradable soap, soap powder, detergents and fabric softeners, lubricants, cosmetics, candles, sanitary and pharmaceutical products, as well as biofuels (called dendiesel) for diesel engines.
Today, palm oil is the second most produced and consumed oil in the country, representing 18.49% of world consumption. If the planting of oil palm is properly conducted, the production of its oil occurs at the end of the third year, with a harvest of six to eight tonnes of fruits per hectare. The palm reaches its maximum yield in its eighth year, when it comes to produce twenty-five tonnes of grapes per hectare, remaining at that level until its 17th year, and declining slightly to the end of its productive life, which is around 25 years.
According to Cascudo (1954), the first record found on the palm oil refers to information from the Portuguese Duarte Lopez, in his work A History of the Kingdom of Congo (Rome, 1591). In it can be read: The oil is made from the fruit pulp... and is used as oil and butter; and burnt, they use it to anoint their bodies; and it is good for food. Who had the olive oil tradition was the Portuguese who received it from the Moors, appreciators of olive oil, planters of olive groves. When the Portuguese faced Africa they took five hundred years, minimum, of olive oil in their uses and customs.
In the Candomblé of Bahia, according to that folklorist, palm oil represents the fetish of the Orishá [god] Ifá to unveil the future. Indispensable in African-Brazilian cuisine, palm oil was a hotly contested ornament of trade. Ornaments themselves, with or without magic functions, were the longest-lasting negotiable objects in the Palaeolithic era.
Câmara Cascudo also highlights a text by Hildegardes Viana (Bahian Cuisine, Bahia, 1955): The fine and clean oil is called the ‘flower’, and the leftover grounds are called ‘bamba’. The straw left to dry in the sun provides ‘oguxó’ (bagasse to make fire). From the fruit of the palm, ‘xoxô’ is extracted and used by black people as a hair conditioner and skin softener.
Palm oil production should begin soon after harvesting, consisting of the following steps: 1. sterilisation — used to inactivate enzymes that cause acidity in the oil, and facilitate the detachment of the fruits from the clusters; 2. threshing — designed to separate the fruits from the bunch; 3. digesting — in this stage, the pulp’s cell structure is broken to facilitate the pressing and release of the oil; 4. pressing — the pulp leaves the digester and is subjected to pressing in order to separate the oil from the mixture of fibres and seeds. The oil extracted from the fruit pulp is called crude palm oil. That mixture passes through a shredder and the fibres and seeds are separated by means of ventilation. The fibres are used in boilers as fuel, and the seeds are transported to the dryers. After drying, they go to the nut crackers, separating peels and seeds. The latter are send to the press where the palm kernel oil is extracted through the pressing of the beans.
The fruit of the oil palm is so rich that the residue remaining from the final press contains from 14% to 18% protein, even being used as a component in the manufacture of animal feed. Palm oil has a reddish-yellow colour and a sweet flavour, has some antioxidant elements and a high content of carotenoids (an important source of vitamin A), and its use is associated with anticarcinogenic substances. In Brazil, there are about 40 thousand hectares of oil palms, mostly in the Amazon region.
At present, oil palm cultivation is one of the most important agro-industrial activities of humid tropical regions. At the same time, it is considered a cultivation that has a strong ecological appeal: it has low levels of environmental aggression, adapts well to poor soil, protects the soil from leaching and erosion, and “mimics” the rainforest. This cultivation has a great ability to absorb carbon dioxide, second only to the eucalyptus. Moreover, it assists in restoring water and climatological balance, contributes significantly to recycling and release of O2, and also combats the excessive rise in Earth’s average temperatures.
The popular palm oil is a primary ingredient in African-Brazilian cuisine. In Bahia, the population consumes several delicious dishes made with this oil: 1. acarajé (black-eyed bean dumplings, crushed in a pestle and fried in palm oil); 2. caruru (made from chopped okra, shrimp, chicken and palm oil); omalá (the favourite dish of the Orishá Shango, similar to caruru , made with okra and palm oil and served with rice porridge); bobó (the main course of the Voduns [gods] with a base of cassava, palm oil and shrimp); ipetê (the favourite dish of Oshun prepared with boiled yam, palm oil and dried shrimp); omolocum (a delicacy prepared in honour of Oshun, with a black-eyed bean base, palm oil, shrimp and eggs). In addition to these, also prepared are vatapás, muquecas, eras-peterê, farofas and other dishes. Some holy foods (special votive delicacies of African gods) are prepared by the filhas-de-santo, within their services, and always contain palm oil. This oil is still used in the liturgies of the Orishas, Voduns, Inquices and Encantados [different names for gods].
Everything from the oil palm is utilised. The stems are used in handicrafts and worship practices, through the making of xaxarás (insignias of Omolu that the filhas-de-santo hold in their hands as they dance in Candomblés) and ibiris; and its straw is shredded and used to make mariôs, utensils placed on sanctuary doors and windows and the dance halls of the yards as a protection against harm. Palm oil is in a prominent position on the world’s oil market and its production is currently in 2nd place, behind only soybean oil.
Recife, 26 February 2008.
Translated by Peter Leamy, September 2016.
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