Cold, virgin and hardly pressed…

Some powerful truths about which oils are great to eat, which to miss and why.

And from the peanuts, comes forth the oil!

Time was when our kitchen oils came out of the local oil seller’s crusher and were poured, golden and gleaming, into stainless steel jars that our mothers (or grandmothers, depending on how old you are) had taken with them to the shop. These stocks usually lasted about a fortnight and then mother was back again to the shop for more freshly pressed stuff.

Mum got to choose her oil seeds and have them crushed, right under her eagle eye, for use in cooking our vegetables, dals, curries and the oh-so-many different kinds of breads. They were also used to fry bhajiyas (fritters) and to shallow fry dosais (savoury pancakes) The oils were added to a myriad different dry powders to form delish chutneys that were eaten with the dosais and bhajiyas. Yum!

Fragrant, translucent, cold-pressed, virgin sesame oil — amber gold waiting to be used!

Cold-pressed, virgin oils — I had no idea what that meant when I was young and for a great deal longer after that…. but I did know that til oil (sesame oil) tasted divine with the dry pudis (chutney powders)that Mum had always stocked in glass jars in the kitchen. I do know that I loved the deeply aromatic, dark gold flecks of mustard oil shaken onto my ‘jhaal muri’, a Calcutta style street crunchy snack made with puffed rice (muri) and topped with a fistful of finely chopped onions, cucumber, tomatoes and green chilis. Groundnut oil was for mixing ‘Kacchey pohey’, a dry snack eaten at tea time, made out of roasted rice flakes coated with a spicy roasted lentil and spice mix called ‘metkut’ — and into which crisp, freshly cut onion and tangy, raw mango bits were tossed in. Oooooh!

Curry leaves and mustard seeds spluttering in peanut oil — a tempering for fresh coconut chutney to be served with dosais
All these oils were eaten raw, as mentioned in the snacks above, and it was their distinct aroma and flavour that made each dish memorable, as much as the seasonal, speciality ingredients used.

I have no memory of when it was that the big change happened — when our favourite oils ceased to come out of the local oil crushery (if there is such a word) and started to come out of ugly plastic cans that looked pretty much like petrol jerry cans. The golden-hued oils with their strong aromas were now a thing of the past.

The new buzz words were ‘refined’, ‘deodorised’, ‘processed’, ‘clean’, ‘unadulterated’, ‘pure’, ‘mill-produced’ and other such clinical and important-sounding words. We were eating more ‘hygienic’ foods, made by big corporations with international branches and large mills with stringent quality control processes. Wow, that we were so lucky!

As I grew up, finished college, started work, got married, moved out of home, I had no further truck with ancient traditions that had long left our lives. As an urbanite, I had in any case lost all connect with my agrarian roots. No more visits to the ancestral village or to grandfather’s farm. We were city folks through and through. My parents often spoke of their childhood memories of family-tilled farmland and seemingly hoary traditions such as farm picnics embarked upon each harvest season. But those shared memories were pretty much all that was left of my rural inheritance.

‘Modak’, a sweet fried dumpling, stuffed with a cream made from fresh coconut, milk, sugar and nuts being readied for Ganesh Pooja; they are the God Ganesh’ favourite snack

Over the last few years, I have begun to reconnect with my roots. Some years ago, I picked up a small piece of farmland. Mysteriously, alone of all my siblings, I had always yearned for a soil connect. Maybe my farmer, land-tiller genes were germinating and sprouting, fomenting an internal revolution. As an urban nomad, I had lost all connections with my ancestral village. As a rural wannabe, I developed connections with a village that was far from my roots, yet close to my heart.

Naturally grown!

I began sourcing my kitchen supplies of naturally grown lentils and spices from small farmers, from their surplus stock. My oil seeds were bought and stored in the village and periodically crushed in a locally run, old style wooden press. Each oil was crushed in a separate crusher, to retain integrity of flavour and smell. The leftover oil-cake was given to a local farmer for his cattle. Occasionally, we in turn, received gifts of freshly made buttermilk and home-made ghee (Ayurvedic style clarified butter).

A millets preparation being seasoned with oil and spices

Gradually, my nose began to awake to heady scents and aromas; my senses rediscovered flavours and fragrances that were long forgotten, hidden under the heavy burden of years of forgetting. The smell of red chilies drying under a thatched roof; the pungent odour of ajwain (carom) seeds, just harvested; the sweet, heady scent of fennel seeds, still green with its essential oils intact. And oh! the difference that this has made!

Your Kitchen of the Five Senses.

The kitchen is a place where you should use all five senses… “taste, touch, smell, see, hear”… the crackle of toasted oil seeds to be used as a garnish, the aroma of a curry leaf, the scent of a fresh cut lemon, running your fingers through flour or a bin filled with uncooked dal…. cooking is sensual in nature, so enjoy this.
Today, in our kitchen, you’ll find four to five different kinds of natural oil and two kinds of ghee. We cook with them all. Our mantra says that life is a spice called variety. And food is nothing if not dipped deep in variety, variety and more variety.
A traditional stone grinding slab and pestle called ‘sil-batta’ , showcasing mustard oil seeds and dry, whole red chilies and a bottle of cold-pressed, virgin mustard oil

Our cold pressed virgin mustard oil is pressed in a small farmer’s wooden press and hand filtered. The result: A dark amber liquid that is molten bronze with a sharply spicy, pungent mustardy fragrance. Takes me straight back to Calcutta afternoons filled with shukto (a mixed vegetable made with mustard paste), mustard fish curry and aaloo-bhaatey (boiled potato, mashed and flavoured with mustard oil, salt, finely chopped onions, fresh coriander and chopped green chilies), all eaten with hot, steamed rice. Our green leafy veggies are always cooked in this oil, redolent of the dry Rajasthani fields where our oil seeds come from.

Our cold pressed, virgin, hand filtered sesame oil: It’s nutty, flavourful; great for Oriental stir fries, eating raw in pudis and salads, frying dosais, super in just about anything!

Our lovingly extracted sesame oil, cold-pressed and virgin, is twice-pressed and then hand filtered. It’s the colour of aged honey, and its smell is distinct: Earthy and reminiscent of the first showers of the monsoon. Our dosais are often made using this oil, giving them a rich, nutty flavour. Ayurveda extols the virtues of sesame oil.

The cold pressed, virgin groundnut oil we use is made by crushing whole, unshelled groundnuts. This gives it a wonderfully mellow flavour. It’s a rich, sunshine coloured oil, bright and sparkling with the promise of taste. The aroma is distinctly ‘peanutty’. I can use it for anything and it delivers each time. From Oriental food to Banarasi khana, it makes each flavour dance. I remember a young mother eating a dosai I had prepared in this oil and praising it; when asked if she used peanut oil in her kitchen she said she didn’t because “Doesn’t it have too strong a smell?” After gently breaking the news that the delicious food she was enjoying had been cooked in this very oil, she smiled and took home a litre.

I also use extra virgin coconut oil — great for baking, appropriate for south Indian curries especially ones that use coconut milk and generally delish for desserts, especially if you’re vegan and ghee is off your list.

Apple and baby spinach salad often had by my family for breakfast; uses extra-virgin olive oil in the dressing

We reserve high quality Italian olive oil, cold pressed and extra-virgin, for salads (as in the picture above) and lightly tossed pastas — no cooking in this, please. Its low smoking temperature just doesn’t permit it to be used in any Indian cooking. In fact, heating makes it carcinogenic.

So, which oils shouldn’t you use for cooking?

1. No refined oils! Give refined oils an absolute miss: De-odourised, decolourised, filled with chemical solvents that are so bad for you, just banish them from your kitchen immediately.

2. All the new-fangled oils: Canola, Rice bran oil, Sunflower oil… my personal advice, stay away. These are not oil seeds that have been traditionally used. For example, rice bran is a waste from rice mills that is now being used to extract oil. How is this oil extracted? By heating the bran with steam to stabilise the oil before it is extracted. Had anyone ever heard of rice bran oil growing up? Sunflower oil has the highest content of Omega-6 oils that aren’t really good for you and none of the Omega-3 that are actually very good for you. Eat sunflower seeds, not the oil!

Most of the refined oils in the market today are commercial oils; often these are meant to be cheaper substitutes for the more expensive naturally occurring oils, and are meant to optimise usage of waste material (eg Rice bran) and are lapped up by chip and snack manufacturers. My personal advice — avoid! India is rich in traditional oil seeds, use those oils. Want the benefits of Oryzanol, touted as a benefit of rice bran oil? Why don’t you just eat rice with its bran on? Like red rice or brown rice or black rice? All the goodness of oryzanol with none of the chemicals and heating associated with commercial oil extraction!

3. Olive oil is NOT meant for Indian cooking! Use extra-virgin, cold pressed olive oil as it is meant to be used: In salads, in dressings, as a raw oil mixed with to dip your freshly baked bread in. Anyone who tells you different is wrong! Dead wrong. As for using pomace olive oil ( a blend of cheaper oils and olive oil) and plain olive oil (which is not virgin or cold pressed), you are losing the very benefits for which you are eating olive oil in the first place — its monounsaturated fatty acids. They are destroyed by heating and are maximum in the extra-virgin, cold pressed oils.

6 Essential Steps to choosing a great oil for your cooking

If you ask these questions when you’re choosing a cooking oil and get a “YES!”, you’re home safe.

  1. Is it from a naturally grown oil seed? Choose an oil that’s made from a traditional oil seed, grown naturally, without chemicals. This can be extracted with minimum fuss, without needing heating or chemical solvents. Keeps all the goodness of the oil intact.
  2. Is it cold-pressed and virgin? Packed in a glass bottle? The best oils are the ones that are obtained through gentle mechanical pressure, no heating used and preferably extracted only once or twice from the oil seeds. Glass bottles best preserve the oil’s integrity.
  3. Does it have a high smoking temperature? Indian cooking requires that the oil be stable at high temperatures. The best oils for such cooking are Sesame, Peanut, Mustard and Coconut.
  4. Check the colour — is it translucent? The best oils are usually translucent and not opaque. Sometimes, do note though that they may be cloudy if they are hand filtered. In time, a thin layer of fine solids could settle at the bottom of the bottle. Nothing to be worried about.
  5. Check the viscosity — is it ‘liquidy’ and flows easily? Older, rancid oil tends to congeal and become more viscous. However, there are exceptions to this rule such as castor oil (medicinal) which is usually more viscous than other oils.
  6. Now smell the oil. Is it fragrant? A delicious aroma? Good quality oils will have a distinct, pleasant food aroma. Though do keep in mind that each of us have different levels of sensitivity to smells and fragrances. Not all of us have a sharp sense of smell and if you have a cold, you may not be able to small anything at all!
Above all, experiment, buy different oils and cook with them. Continue with the ones whose taste you like. Store oils away from heat and direct sunlight. In warm climates you can even store them in the fridge. Preferably use a variety of oils… more on this later! It’s a topic that will need a separate post!

Enjoy! Bon appetit! Sakhtain!

Button mushrooms tossed with spinach, great as an evening snack: Heat a tsp of peanut or sesame oil, in a karai, chuck in a few crushed pods of garlic, stir, add the mushrooms, keep tossing till the moisture evaporates and add the baby spinach; wait till it wilts, add salt and pepper to taste, add a dash of vinegar and serve!
My mother would be happy to know that life for us has turned full circle. That my kitchen is back to where I remember it as a little girl. Rich and aromatic. Filled with natural ingredients. With foods that have the power to restore. To heal. Fresh produce. Diverse ingredients. Seasonal vegetables. Local flavour. Filled with taste. And home-made goodness. Thanks mainly to her.

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NB: Infographic courtesy; All photographs styled and clicked by Kaanchan Bugga