India’s beauty is in its diversity. Our states that make India an awe-inspiring country have rich histories and richer cuisines. Just as favoured spices and herbs differ from state to state, so does the cooking oil. The role a particular oil plays in any cuisine can never be underestimated, as the uniqueness of the aroma and flavour of the oil takes the dish to another plane altogether.
Traditionally, Indians have used certain cooking oils for hundreds of years, but newer ones have flooded the markets today. However, many food and health enthusiasts recognise the need to return to our roots and consume what our ancestors hailed as tasty and healthy.
Today, we shall talk about a few oils that have ruled Indian kitchens and where “Maa ke hath ka khaana” really gets its flavours from.
The zesty pungent “Sarson ka Tel,” that we otherwise call mustard oil is an all-time favourite in the north as well as the north-east and eastern states. To name a few, Punjabi, Bihari, Bengali, Assamese and Oriya cuisines owe their exceptional reputation to this celebrated oil to some extent. Its piquant flavour and intense aroma give the dish an edge which might not be possible if swapped with another oil. Its high smoke point makes it an excellent frying oil. Mustard oil is used for frying the delectable Holi snacks in many households in these states. Some family favourites like stuffed karela and brinjals in Uttar Pradesh owe their distinct zest to mustard oil. Kachi ghani is the most preferred option when it comes to cooking with this oil.
This edible oil has many cosmetic uses too due to its antibacterial and antifungal properties. It has a massive fan following in DIY haircare and skincare.
When talking about groundnut oil, we cannot miss “gujju” food. The Gujarati and Maharashtrian cuisines are so partial to groundnut oil that we can rarely see any other oil unless the seasonal pickles demand it. The nutty flavoured oil can do it all – deep-frying, broiling, sauteeing, barbequing – you name it! Remember the tadka on your plate of Khaman Dhokla, that’s our groundnut oil with its glam on.
Though today the markets are flooded with many variants of groundnut oil like refined, unrefined and cold-pressed, traditionally just the filtered version was appreciated. The roasted flavour of this oil gives it the well-deserved superiority to other oils, though its health benefits are no less. It is touted to be a heart-healthy oil which is known to fight against free radicals and give a boost to immunity. It is also used for cosmetic care.
And here we come to the South Indian states that are very conscious of what cooking oil to use in which delicacy. Karnataka is partial to sesame oil and groundnut oil. Tamil Nadu uses the combination of both these oils too in most of its traditional dishes.
The famous Puliogare is most often made with sesame oil and is relished in both these states with fervour. This delicious nutty-flavoured oil has a history that takes us back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The globally-favoured oil is extremely popular here due to its high smoking point, which makes it a great option for South Indian fried snacks like Murukku or Shankarpali. A drizzle of gingelly oil on some molagapodi, the dry chutney powder or deep-fried ladies’ fingers in this oil will equally tantalise your tastebuds. It is high in antioxidants due to its vitamin E content. Cosmetic uses are many, but a relaxing body massage wins hands down, especially in chilly winters.
In summers when the mangoes and limes are calling out, sesame oil is used to prepare pickles to last the entire year.
Groundnut oil also holds a revered place in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu kitchens. Some traditional dishes cannot even be conceived without the roasted flavour of groundnut oil in these homes.
Coconut oil is synonymous with the state of Kerala. Keralites’ love for coconut in all forms is almost reverential. One whiff in a Malayali home and your palate starts tickling with the warmth of coconut oil. Through the controversy about its adverse health effects, Malayalis stood their ground, and now the verdict seems to have turned in its favour. Haven’t we all pined for those fried banana chips on diet cheat days? Today when some proponents of health look at a high-fat low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss, they point us towards coconut oil. A lot of research is underway for its uses in age-related ailments like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Ayurveda has always recognised each of these oils for their various health benefits and today we are awakening to these claims too.
Article by Payal Kurian