Sometime in the last two decades, a combination of cholesterol fears and olive oil entry led to an array of misconceptions about our local edible oils. Mustard oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, and others were suddenly branded as “bad cholesterol” and canola oil, olive oil, and other blends became the “healthier choice”. Tables are now turning as they usually do after a few decades, when scientific research advances, and new studies now indicate that it is healthier to eat cold pressed, organic oils that are available in your region as they are best suited to your diet and climate.
However, we seem to have now forgotten how to use these oils. Mustard oil, for instance, needs to be heated to smoking point and then brought down to a lower temperature before it can be used if used as a cooking medium. It can, however, be used raw as a finishing oil in small amounts. Coconut oil is available in two consistencies, and each has distinct uses.
This primer will help you understand the flavour profile of each edible oil and its uses:
Groundnut or peanut oil is used as a cooking base in a lot of Indian cooking as well as in South East Asian style cooking. Known to contain more of the good fats and less of the saturated fats, peanut oil is a good all-purpose oil. You can use it for Indian-style stir frying and deep frying as well as wok-based cooking, which needs to be done on a high heat. It has a light nutty flavour but tends to go rancid if unused for too long. It is, therefore, advisable to buy it in smaller quantities and use as required.
Sesame oil is used extensively in South India, Central Maharashtra and some parts of the north. Ayurveda prescribed sesame oil as a good fat for those suffering from joint pain. Since it has a high smoking point, it is an excellent option for Tadka. Many pickles made in central and south India derive their rich flavour from the golden Gingelly oil. A Puliyogare, for instance, tastes best when made using sesame oil, trumping even ghee! Another way to use sesame oil is to heat it and pour over steamed Chinese-style fish in soy sauce and spring onions to bring out the flavour of the greens. In the winters, it is a good idea to use warm sesame oil as a lubricant for painful arthritic joints.
If you’re not used to the smell of mustard oil, it can be quite an acquired taste. When raw, mustard oil can be very pungent, and when heated, it has a very strong aroma that can overpower some foods. It makes for an excellent oil for deep frying, though. Mustard oil has very high levels of erucic acid, and is therefore, not a recommended cooking medium all by itself. It is best to use it sparingly and alternate with other fats such as ghee and other vegetable oils. Raw mustard oil enhances the flavour of black urad daal as it cooks and helps impart a smoky flavour to meat curries and roasts. You can also use it in tiny amounts to add another dimension to a vinaigrette. Blended with fragrant lime juice and zest, it works very well with a leafy salad and steamed fish.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fats, and should, therefore, be consumed in moderation. Coastal cuisines have a rich tradition of using coconut oil intelligently, balancing it with a large amount of fibre in everyday meals. An average Kerala-style meal, for instance, will have at least two kinds of vegetables cooked very lightly with minimal spices and negligent amount of oil alongside a fish or meat curry. Virgin coconut oil is relatively denser and is a great alternative for vegan bakers.