Red Palm Oil

May 4, 2013

Outside of the United States red palm oil is one of the most widely consumed oils in the world. Rich in vitamins and antioxidants it is a popular dietary supplement and cooking oil.  On the other hand, it is also used in the manufacture of cosmetics, lubricants and ink.

It certainly had its uses for the POW along with other miracle fare such as hibiscus leaves, rice polishings and Marmite.

At Kranji there were lectures on red palm oil.  My father was there and naturally took copious notes.   He listed the oil’s many uses (from soap making to dog food), devoted a whole page to the process by which it was made and quoted the lecturer (a Major A.C. Smith) as saying that it “until recently” it had not been considered edible.  Well, quite.

(In fact, red palm oil was being consumed especially in West Africa where, as a 1932 article in the Biochemistry Journal noted, it had much the same function in the diet as olive oil had in Europe.)

Clearly, red palm oil was a bit of an acquired taste.  In Wartime Kitchen, Wong Hong Suen notes that it had previously been used for lighting lamps.  It had “an unpleasant smell and an acerbic taste.”  Both could be mitigated somewhat by adding soda (used for washing clothes) to the boiling oil.  Still, in a time of acute shortage the civilian population found it both cheap and widely available.

The oil available at Changi and Kranji was apparently of a fairly crude variety.  I can only imagine what it tasted like though my father never said much about that.  Along with many of his fellow POW, no doubt, he was more concerned with its after effects.  Here is one typical note from Kranji.

Red Palm Oil

The noticeable augmentation of Red Palm Oil to our diet (particularly in the morning porridge) resulted in a considerable loosening of the bowels.

By eating this oil in excess of the usual quantities it is found to have a beneficial effect on the healing of skin abrasions.  When at one time such sores took days to heal (if they did not develop into tropical ulcers) they now seem to heal without any ill effects.

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