what cooking oil to use

Most of the recipes in this cookbook use oil or a similar ingredient. This essay looks at some of the common Indian cooking oils.

You will be pleased to know that there are some dishes that need the glug of oil to dress them, just like television chefs do. Raita, for example, can often have a sprinkle of oil to finish the dish.

But, what is never used is olive oil, in any of its guises. Olive oil is a European commodity and never made it to India until recently. Today, olives are grown in Rajasthan, and there is a burgeoning olive oil industry, but it does not form part of the food heritage.

Despite the health benefits and the push from modern chefs, olive oil just doesn’t work in Indian cooking. It has a distinct flavour that is incompatible with Indian food. Great with Mediterranean food, but not so with Indian food.

An ingredient that was used extensively in my grandmother’s notes was lard. There are no recipes in this book that use lard. It is not suitable in a modern kitchen, particularly if you want to prepare healthy food. Vegetable oils are substituted wherever she required lard, or I have ignored the recipe.

Having told you what not to use, what can you use instead?

Luckily there are many suitable ingredients, and each one has a specific place and use, and often forms part of the intrinsic flavour of a dish.

One of the most common ingredients, particularly in northern cuisine is ghee. Ghee is a form of clarified butter. It differs from normal clarified butter in that the butter is simmered to allow some of the milk fat to caramelise before separation. This gives it a distinctively nutty flavour and aroma.

a jar of ghee with a teaspoon

There is also vegetable ghee, which is hydrogenated vegetable oil, like margarine. It is often used in Indian restaurants because of its similarity to genuine ghee and lower cost. It is suitable for vegans and is marketed commonly under the Dalda brand name.

Southern and eastern cuisine use mustard oil, or sarson ka tel. It is a cooking or dressing oil that has a strong and pungent mustard flavour. When cooking with mustard oil, you should bring the oil to its smoking point, then allow it to cool a little before using. This burns off the impurities and causes a taste change that results in a smoother mustard flavour.

Because of its unique taste and aroma, it is used for frying, seasoning and tempering. Tempering is the technique of seasoning oil with whole spices. You then use this tempered oil as a finishing touch to a dish.

In researching this article, I discovered, surprisingly, that in some parts of the world mustard oil is not recommended for human consumption. I then found the following advert, which seemed to bear this out.

woman holding a bottle of Engine brand mustard oil
Engine-brand mustard oil

What’s for dinner tonight? Beans fried in engine oil. Sounds appetising, doesn’t it?

Coconut oil, or nariyala tela, is used mainly in the southern coastal cuisines. It is strongly flavoured and is best suited to fish and vegetable dishes. I must confess to a love-hate relationship with coconut oil. I sometimes get overpowered by its flavour, yet in other dishes it just works so well. What I will say is that a little coconut oil goes a very long way.

Coconut oil is best used as a frying agent, and not a dressing agent, again because of its strong taste. However, a drizzle of coconut oil over the Goan prawn cake is really very good and adds a fresh elegance to the dish.

Sesame oil or gingelly oil is another ingredient used in the south. It is often mixed with spice powders and then used to dress idli, dosa and rice. It is also used in pickles and condiments for its unique nutty flavour. Many of the drier vegetable dishes will gain a lift by a drizzle of sesame oil to serve. Be aware, though, that Indian sesame oil is very different to Chinese sesame oil, which is far more intensely flavoured. This Chinese oil is not a substitute for gingelly oil.

Ghee, coconut oil, mustard oil and sesame oil are available from good Indian grocers.

If you are cooking some of the recipes here and don’t have the right oil or ghee, I suggest that the best substitute is the plainest vegetable you have. Safflower oil is a good choice.

Did I mention not to use olive oil?

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