Often overlooked when it comes to planning a recipe, the humble cooking oil can actually have a rather drastic effect on the flavor of recipes, depending on what type is chosen to do the job at hand. The Indian kitchen, depending on the region, utilizes a variety of different cooking oils. Some are chosen to add a certain kick of flavor to dishes; others are selected for the practical features they boast. Yet each plays an important role in the vast and varied cuisine of India.
The top two oils employed throughout the sub-continent are the ubiquitous clarified butter, ghee, and the smoky tasting mustard oil, an ingredient which is particularly favored throughout West Bengal. Coconut oil and sesame oil can also be found in abundance throughout the states.
Ghee is one of the most important ingredients in India and was traditionally considered to be one of the most important substances in the world, according to Hindu belief. Ghee is greatly favored for its use as a cooking oil in India due to the fact it has one of the highest smoke points, making it excellent for frying. Additionally, it keeps for long as it does not contain any milk solids and therefore can be stored outside of the refrigerator, as long as it is kept in an airtight container.
Mustard oil is a popular choice all over India for its distinctive, nutty flavor; and as it is heated, the flavor develops sweeter notes. Unusually, this oil must be brought up to smoking point before it is used for cooking as this improves the flavor dramatically – the opposite effect this technique would have on other cooking oils. The oil itself is made from pressed mustard seeds and was originally used for medicinal purposes as it was believed to be useful in the treatment of arthritis as well as body aches and pains. Mustard oil is also often used to create pickles.
With the vast quantities of coconuts that grow along India’s tropical coastal shores, coconut oil is abundant in certain regions – particularly the southern states and Goa. Predominantly composed of medium-chain saturated fats, this oil has come to the attention of foodies and nutritionists over the past year for bucking the trend of a belief that all saturated fats are ‘bad.’ The fats contained in coconut oil are digested differently, allowing them to be absorbed easier by the body and put to nutritional use. Coconut oil is often incorporated into sumptuous seafood stews and curries due to its tropical taste.
Although this particular oil is more often used in Chinese cooking, it is a popular choice in the southern Indian states such as Tamil Nadu. The commonly used type of sesame oil tends to have a high smoke point, making it a good choice for the deep-fried snacks that are prevalent throughout the sub-continent. It is also used extensively for stir-frying, thanks to its flavor-enhancing properties.
The diversity of cooking oils used throughout India reflects the diversity of the cuisine – pay a visit to one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants and see for yourself!