Updated: May 17, 2021
The ancestral home of palmoil is in West Africa. There, palmoil has a relationship with the land and the people nourished by the land. It is a relationship that is social, cultural, and even spiritual. Before Malaysia and other palmoil exporting countries in Asia began their transactional relationship with palmoil, Nigeria was the world's leading exporter of palmoil in the 1960s, and this palmoil grew in the wild in natural groves. Till today, you still have palmoil in Africa that grow on their own, on community-owned land. One of such places is in Igboland, Eastern Nigeria. Any member of a community can climb a palm tree growing on community land to get the fruit. This is considered to be a gift from God. Once a palm tree on community land is ready for harvest, if you can climb the tree to get the fruit, it is all yours.
In Igboland, there are two types of palmoil: mmanụ ojukwu and mmanụ osuku. Mmanụ ojukwu is from the male palm fruit (akwụ ojukwu) and mmanu osuku is from the female palm fruit (akwụ osuku). It is usually a matter of luck or chance to get either one. They both differ in look and taste. Akwụ ojukwu (the male) is deep orange and gives less oil. Akwụ osuku (the female) is dark red, more succulent, and gives more oil. Taste wise, mmanụ osuku is lighter and dissolves easily in the mouth, but mmanụ ojukwu bites.
When the palm fruits are ripe, someone climbs the tree with a cutlass to harvest them by cutting off the fruit bunches. After the bunches are cut and brought home, the fruits are removed one by one. After the fruits have been individually removed, some people leave the fruit for a few days to ferment. Some people continue processing without fermenting. Some believe that the fermentation helps with higher oil yield. Either way, to continue processing, the fruits need to be cooked to soften them for grinding. They are put in a big pot over firewood, some hot water is added, and everything is cooked for a bit till it is soft enough.
When they are soft, they are either transferred to a morter and pestle to be ground manually, or they can be taken to a mill. After grinding, a pulp made of chaf and kernel is left. The kernel is seperated from the pulp chaf, and this pulp chaf can be taken to a presser where the oil is pressed out. The pressing can also be done manually by hand to squeeze out the palmoil (called mmanụ nri in Igbo).
The kernels can be rinsed and eaten as is like a snack, or they can be further processed to extract the palm kernel oil. To get palm kernel oil, the rinsed kernels are dried, transferred to a pot over heat with no water or oil added, and stirred intermittently as the palm kernel oil keeps coming out. Palm kernel oil is called "ude aki" in Igbo. It has different medicinal purposes. It is usually given to children as a home remedy for convulsions.