In Indian cooking, the flavours and aromas are most often attributed to a masala - a combination of spices used.* However, the oil in which the spices are tempered and in which the ingredients are cooked, is often overlooked as a contributing factor to flavour.
Various oils are used in India depending on which part of the country you are from and depending too on the dish that you are preparing.
Below is an overview of the most commonly used oils:
Ghee - Ghee’s origins are ancient and it is described as the essence that sustains the world in the historical text Mahabharata. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is believed to enhance the “life energy”, contains many healing properties to relieve inflammation, assist with digestion and promote strong immune systems, giving it the nickname “liquid gold”.
Akin to butter, Ghee is versatile because it is used both as an oil and as an ingredient (brushed on rotis or parathas and drizzled on rice if you hail from Bengal). It is an essential ingredient in dishes like Biryani or in many Indian mithais (sweets). It is mildly grainy in texture, has a slightly nutty aroma, and leaves a pleasant taste on the palate. We even have a recipe to make your own Ghee at home!
Groundnut (peanut) oil - Peanut oil has been used over millennia in India. It is only in the 1950s that it started to be refined. However, to preserve the flavour and aroma it is less refined than other oils. In India, it is prized for its antioxidant properties. Thanks to its high smoking point, it is used to deep fry pakoras and other tasty morsels.
Mustard oil - Mustard oil is made from the fat extracted from the seeds of the mustard plant. This oil is widely used in the northern and eastern parts of India, as well as in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Mustard oil is pungent and spicy and punches the olfactory senses especially once it is heated. I remember when I lived in Delhi and first started cooking with mustard oil - it took my tastebuds a while to adjust to the taste of most of my meals being cooked in mustard oil. Nowadays, I crave for it! Mustard oil is great for creating achars (spicy Indian pickles) and for preparing tadka (tempering) to season a dish.
Coconut oil - Just like the north of India loves its mustard oil, so too do many southern states love their coconut oil. The leading producer of coconut oil is the south-most state of Tamil Nadu. India is the third largest producer of coconuts in the world. We love using coconut oil when preparing South-Indian dishes like the filling of spiced potatoes that goes into dosa or any side vegetable dish. If you are a coconut fan, then using this oil with your cooking will ensure your dishes are subtly flavoured with coconut throughout. In Goa, we usually use it raw, as a finishing oil, in vegetables that are very simply steamed with freshly grated coconut and salt to taste.
Click here to read more about the varied uses of coconut in India and its importance to culture, religion and beauty.
Sesame oil - Another oil commonly used in southern parts of India is sesame oil (known as Gingelly). If it is dark in colour, it is usually because the seeds have been roasted prior to the extraction of oil and it is therefore not as suitable for deep-frying but can be used for sauteing. If it is lighter in shade, it has a higher smoking point and can be used for deep-frying. Sesame oil has a high proportion of polyunsaturated fats and it is a rich source of Vitamin E. Sesame oil is generally used in pickling, Indo-Chinese foods and salads.
- Vanaspati - Vanaspati means of vegetable origin. It has a ghee like texture and was made in the early 20th century by a Dutch company. It was marketed as a replacement for ghee made from cow’s milk which was expensive. It was originally made with peanut oil but today is made from palm oil.
Upon heating, oil can change in colour, texture taste and nutritional properties. Now that you know a bit more about the oils used, we can share with you more on how they are used for different purposes in Indian cooking.
The smoking point of an oil is pretty self explanatory; it is when the oil starts to smoke after being heated, leaving its shimmering state.
Depending on your preparation method, you may want to consider the following below:
- Sauteing - If you are making a curry and need to first saute the onions and tomatoes before adding water, the best oils to go for are those with lower smoking points.
- Deep-frying - Peanut or sunflower oil are good for chips and pakoras.
- Tempering - Ghee, mustard oil and coconut oil make great bases for a spicy tadka because of their high smoking points.
- Garnishing - Lighter oils like sesame or extra virgin olive oil.
In summation, use a cold pressed oil wherever possible and for that special ‘Tadka’ or Biryani use Ghee - there’s no substitute for its flavour and goodness.
Click here for a more in-depth explanation of different cooking oils.
*The word masala means a combination of spices - every dish and has its own special ratio of spices.