Coconut trees are plentiful in the South Pacific, so it’s no surprise that resourceful islanders in Fiji have been using their bounty for thousand of years to eat, cook, soothe their skin, condition their hair, and use as tableware — when hollowed out, halved and polished, coconuts make pretty good bowls, particularly for the national ceremonial drink called kava.

More significantly, recent studies have suggested that coconut oil — made by scraping the ripe coconut, squeezing its milk through a cloth, and leaving it for three days to separate into water, solids and clear oil — has exceptional healing properties that may help sufferers of everything from Alzheimer’s and thyroid disease to viral, bacterial and fungal infections.

Chef Lance Seeto, executive chef at 1808 Restaurant at the Castaway resort in Fiji and the author of “Coconut Bliss: A Memoir, Cookbook, and Inspirational Story of Life Living With an Ancient Culture,” is a big believer in the benefits of coconut oil. “It’s natural medicine, it strengthens the immune system, and can prevent disease and infections. It burns nontoxic and it’s better than processed vegetable oil, which may have a breast cancer link. It’s good for the brain,” says Seeto, who sips three capfuls a day. “There’s a reason the islanders don’t have as many food allergies, autoimmune disorders, diseases like diabetes. Genes play a part, but their diet has these healthy fats, and less dairy and gluten.” (It should be noted, however that coconut oil is high in saturated fat and is not low-calorie. One tablespoon contains 117 calories and 14 grams of fat, and 12 of those grams are saturated fat.)

Cover of Coconut Bliss book

Seeto, born in Papua New Guinea to Chinese parents and raised in Melbourne, Australia, settled in Fiji four years ago, after falling in love with the culture and cuisine. His Fijian-Asian restaurant’s recipes use a lot of local ingredients, organic herbs and spices, and coconut oil, with an emphasis on foods that are in season. “Mother Nature intended us to eat things at certain times of the year,” reminds the chef, whose TV show “Taste of Paradise — The Food of Life” can be seen in 11 countries in the South Pacific.

One of the more ubiquitous uses of coconut oil in Fiji is as a skin emollient, straight from the tree or bottled by Pure Fiji, which mixes it with botanical extracts like mango, frangipani, and passionflower and supplies it to all the major hotels. The company employs more than 500 people in seven villages to process the coconuts before the products are packaged locally in Suva. It also makes products for use in spas, such as a coconut oil and cane sugar scrub and coconut oil mixed with dilo oil, from the locally grown dilo tree. It’s the basis of the dilo banana wrap treatment, which is popular at spas like Baravi at the Yasawa Island Resort.

“It’s good for almost all skin ailments, insect bites, sunburn, rashes, cuts and wounds. It promotes healing,” says massage therapist Cathy Nukuse, who learned to use it as a child. We use it on our babies’ skin, and it helps pregnant women. We cut up the leaves in small pieces and put it in coconut oil. You can also pick the leaves and rub your hands together — the green liquid that comes out, you can sip that as a herbal remedy.”

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