This study uses food as a lens to examine three historical phenomena: globalization’s limits, the rise of plantation-centric monocultures, and the resilience of social norms within migrant societies. The article scrutinizes the West African oil palm’s initial journey to, and reception within, the Malay Peninsula, one of the world’s largest exporters of palm oil by the end of the twentieth century. The article pays special attention to changes in the crop’s perceived food value during the interwar years, a facet overlooked by earlier scholarship. Five different migrant groups in Malaya – planter households, Asian cooks, colonial officials, government chemists, and estate labourers – played critical roles in transforming palm oil into a crop purely for industrial purposes, rather than subsistence. The peculiarities of Malaya’s social context are further sharpened by comparisons with Latin America and West Africa, where different clusters of migrants propagated the oil palm’s subsistence cultures, instead of shunning them.