Coconut oil lends a convincing authenticity to a whole host of Asian dishes, from beef rendang to Thai green curry, but its use needn't be restricted to oriental recipes. It's fantastic for frying fish, for instance, or for sauteing onions for a rice or grain-based pilaf.

Coconut oil is arguably the healthiest oil to use in frying, and it can transform the most humdrum of dishes.

Coconut oil

Forget scented candles - there's nothing quite like the aroma of gently warming coconut oil to transport your mind to a Mutiny on the Bounty island with lapping waves, golden sand and swaying palms.

Don't buy the odourless, flavourless "pure" type that has been industrially refined. Go for the raw, cold-pressed, virgin sort. Its fragrance and tropical opulence can elevate even a humdrum weekday dal into something special.

Coconut oil lends a convincing authenticity to a whole host of Asian dishes, from beef rendang to Thai green curry, but its use needn't be restricted to oriental recipes. It's fantastic for frying fish, for instance, or for sauteing onions for a rice or grain-based pilaf.

Why is coconut oil good for me?
White and solid at room temperature, coconut oil is slower to oxidise and less damaged and chemically altered by heat than other cooking oils. So it's arguably the healthiest oil to fry with.

Coconut oil is one of the best sources of heart-healthy medium-chain fatty acids, notably lauric acid, which enhances the immune system through its antiviral and antibacterial effects. These acids also stimulate metabolism, and some research suggests they can aid weight loss.

Where to buy and what to pay?
Coconut oil isn't cheap, but then a small amount makes a big impact. You'll find attractively inexpensive coconut oil in Asian groceries and Chinese supermarkets, but usually only the industrially refined sort. Look for it in wholefood shops where 500g of cold-pressed, virgin, organic coconut oil costs £8.50-£10.50. It stays fresh for ages, so if you can afford a big jar it should be much better value.

Coconut and parsnip cake
Parsnip and coconut have some similar flavour notes, so they compliment each other well in this dairy-free cake. It's great with coconut icing, and delicious warm with coconut ice-cream.

For the cake
175g coconut oil, warm enough to spread
200g caster sugar
100g soft brown sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 large eggs at room temperature, beaten
250g parsnip, peeled and coarsely grated
50g desiccated coconut
250g self-raising flour
1½ tsp baking powder
Flavourless oil to grease the cake tin

For the icing
20g desiccated coconut
150g coconut oil, warm enough to spread
150g icing sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice with 1 tbsp warm water

1 Preheat the oven to 160C/320F/gas mark 3. Spread out the dessicated coconut for the icing out on a baking tray, and place into the warming oven until golden brown. Leave to cool.

2 Grease a 20cm cake tin. Line the base with baking paper. Put the coconut oil for the cake in a mixing bowl and beat until soft and light. Add the sugars and lemon zest and blend together. Add the eggs gradually; if the mixture starts to curdle, add a bit of flour. Carefully fold in the parsnip and coconut, then the flour and baking powder. Loosen with the lemon juice.

3 Turn the mixture into a tin and bake for 45 minutes to an hour until an inserted knife comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes then turn out of the tin to cool completely.

4 Ice the cake when cold. Beat the oil in a mixer and gradually add the sugar, beating with each addition. Once smooth and thick, drizzle in the lemon juice mixture. Beat for 2 more minutes, leave to sit for 10 minutes, then spread over the cake. Once iced, sprinkle over the toasted coconut. Give the icing 30 minutes to set before eating.

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