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 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.
My Aaii (Marathi for ‘mother’) chose her oil seeds and had them crushed, right under her eagle eye! These were then used to cook our vegetables, dals, curries and the oh-so-many different kinds of breads — Thaalipeeth, Dhaapdey, Ghadi chya Polyaa. They were also used to fry bhajiyas (fritters) and to shallow fry dosais and dhirdey(savoury pancakes) The oils were added to a hundred and one different dry powders to form instant chutneys that were eaten with the dosais and bhajiyas. Yummy!
Cold-pressed, extra-virgin oils —that’s what they were as I discovered on growing up! All I knew was that the til oil (sesame oil) tasted divine with the dry pudis (chutney powders)that Mum had always stocked in glass jars in the kitchen. I loved the distinctly aromatic, dark gold droplets of mustard oil that were shaken on to my ‘jhaal muri’ — a Calcutta style street snack made with puffed rice (kurmura) and garnished with finely chopped onions, cucumber, tomatoes and green chilis.
Groundnut oil was for ‘Kacchey Pohey’, a 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. Cold-pressed groundnut oil, nutty and aromatic was what brought the disparate elements together….Oooooh!
All these dishes contained raw oil, and it was the distinct fragrance and flavour of each oil that made the dish unforgettable, as much as the seasonal, speciality ingredients that were used.
I have no defining memory of exactly when our favourite oils ceased to come out of the local oil ‘ghaani’ and instead came out of brightly-coloured, mass-produced plastic cans. The amber oils with their delicious smells seemed to have disappeared.The latest buzz words became ‘refined’, ‘odour-free’, ‘untouched by human hand’, ‘mill-made’, ‘manufactured’, ‘processed’, ‘hygienic’, ‘pure’, and other such clinical-sounding words. We were now eating unadulterated, refined oils, made by large companies with international branches and in huge factories to stringent quality-conscious norms. Lucky us!
As I grew up, finished college, started work, got married, moved out of home, I became a thoroughly urbanised, city-dweller. My only connect with our rural roots were the often-shared, childhood memories of my parents’ family-tilled farmland and lost-in-time traditions such as ‘Hurda parties’ — farm picnics held at harvest time. Nostalgia was my inheritance.
Over the last decade, I began to reconnect with my roots. Some years ago, I even picked up a small piece of farmland — finally the soils connect I had always yearned for. Perhaps those farmer genes were now sprouting, fomenting an internal revolution. Having lost all connection with my ancestral village, I now developed connections with a village that was far from my roots, yet close to my heart.
No chemicals, please!
I began sourcing naturally grown lentils and spices for my kitchen — all from small farmers, from their surplus stock. We bought oil seeds — how exciting was that. And periodically, we had them crushed in a locally run, old style wooden press. Each oil had its own press, to keep its original flavour and aroma. The leftover oil-cake was given to a local farmer for his cattle. Occasionally, we in turn, received rich bounty — freshly made white butter, fresh buttermilk and golden home-made hand-churned ghee (Ayurvedic style clarified butter).
Gradually, my olfactory senses began to awaken — rediscovering flavours and fragrances now long forgotten: The pungent smell of red chilies drying in the shade; the astringent odour of just harvested ajwain (carom) seeds; the sweet scent of fennel (saunf), still green with its essential oils intact. Life was turning into a rich secret garden of heady fragrances.
Make it a Kitchen of the Five Senses.
Your kitchen is a place where you must 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 freshly plucked, finger-torn curry leaf; the heady scent of a fresh cut lemon; running your fingers through a bin filled with jewel-toned dals— emerald-hued moong, amber-coloured arhar, topaz-tinted channa, …. cooking is sensual in nature, so enjoy it!
Today, in our kitchen, we have four to five different kinds of natural, cold-pressed, extra-virgin oil and two kinds of ghee. We cook with them all and enjoy the difference in aroma and flavour of each!
Our cold pressed virgin mustard oil comes out of a small farmer’s wooden press and then is filtered. The result: A deep amber liquid with an unmistakable, pungent fragrance. It takes me straight back to Kolkata evenings filled with jhaal mudi and lunches filled with shukto (a mixed vegetable made with mustard paste), rui maccher sorser jhol and aaloo-bhaatey (mashed potato, flavoured with raw mustard oil, finely diced onions, coriander and green chilies) — to be eaten with steaming rice. Our spinach and mustard greens are always cooked in this oil, redolent of the dry Rajasthani fields where our mustard comes from.
Our sesame oil, cold-pressed and virgin, cold-pressed and then hand filtered is the colour of aged honey, with an earthy smell, reminiscent of the first showers of the monsoon. We make our dosais with this oil, giving them a rich, nutty flavour. Ayurveda extols the virtues of cold-pressed sesame oil.
Our cold pressed, virgin groundnut oil is made by crushing whole, unshelled groundnuts. Yes, you read right — unshelled! This imparts a wonderfully mellow flavour. It’s a rich, sunshine coloured oil, bright and sparkling with the promise of taste. I can use it for anything and it delivers each and every time. Be it Oriental food or Banarasi khaana, it makes each flavour sing. I remember a young mother eating a dosai I had prepared in this oil and praising it; when asked if she used groundnut oil in her kitchen, she confessed she didn’t because “Isn’t it too strong smelling?” After sharing that the delicious food she was revelling in had been cooked in this very oil, she smiled and took home a bottle.
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.
We reserve high quality Italian olive oil, cold pressed and extra-virgin, for occasional salads (as in the picture above) and lightly tossed pastas — no cooking in this, please, please! Its low smoking temperature just doesn’t permit it to be used in any Indian cooking. In fact, heating makes it carcinogenic.
What’s the lesson I learnt? Above all, experiment! Buy different oils and cook with each of them. The same vegetable tastes different when cooked in a different oil! How amazing is that! I still revel in the different scents and flavours that fill my kitchen thanks to these cold-pressed, extra-virgin oils!
By the way, don’t forget to store oils away from heat and direct sunlight. In warm weather, you can even store them in the fridge. When you’re using cold-pressed, extra-virgin oils, with no chemicals or preservatives or stabilisers, you need to treat them with a bit of tender loving, and they’ll love you back too!
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NB: All photographs styled and clicked by Kaanchan Bugga