Oils And Fats Of Indian Cuisine - The Flavourful Cooking Mediums
Image Credit: Ghee is considered pure | Unsplash

Culinary diversity is one of the foremost reasons why India is considered a gastronomical powerhouse. Indian cuisine is based on varied ingredients, from spices to vegetables, lentils to meats, and millet to rice; Understanding the best methods to cook culinary ingredients is where lies the true wisdom of cooking, and the cooking medium plays a crucial role in providing the ideal base for any dish. Different oils and fats are used at varying stages of cooking, ensuring the optimum flavours of the ingredient are achieved and imparting the flavour of the oil or fat to the dish. It’s prudent to analyse the different cooking mediums used and how they are used in Indian culinary practices.

Desi Ghee

In most cuisines, when we talk about the cooking medium, oil is the first thing that comes to mind. However, In the Indian context, Ghee plays a key role. Most of India uses Ghee in some form or the other. Ghee is prepared from the butter that is simmered to evaporate water and milk solids to prepare a nutty and rich clarified form. Tempering of ghee atop dishes like dal, sambhar, and khichdi is a quintessential Indian benchmark of good quality preparation and is almost always a mandatory finishing touch. Many Indian sweet dishes are also considered good quality only because they are prepared in ghee. The usage of ghee goes back to the Vedic period, and even today, religious rituals and yagnas are done with ghee being poured atop the Fire (Agni) in a Hawan Kund. Ghee is, thus, a prescribed cooking medium for most ‘Saatvik’ preparations cooked in temples, making it widespread and an essential ingredient for temple cuisine.

‘Ghee Bhath’, or ‘Neychoru’ (In Kerala), is a typical dish prepared with rice and ghee in the South Indian States, where you will find ghee being poured atop rice with Podi (Spice, chillies, and lentil powder), especially in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In Northern India, Biryanis and Pulao are often prepared with ghee, whereas, in most homes, Parathas and tawa rotis are prepared with ghee or smeared on them before serving. Ghee as a cooking medium is common for dishes like Pooris and Kachoris. You can find it widely displayed outside shops in Rajasthan, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh, advertising the usage of pure desi ghee to ensure the quality of food and the trust of their patrons.

Even in meat preparations, cooking meat in nutty and rich ghee makes for a delicious preparation, where the rich ‘Roghan’ floating on the dishes makes us salivate at the first look of it. Tempering ghee heightens the flavour many folds, be it ‘Nahari’ of Delhi or Ghee wala meat prepared in Punjab’s Dhabas. Thus, Desi ghee is indispensable in Indian cooking.

Mustard Oil

Whenever we talk about the flavours of Indian cuisines, the usage of Mustard oil is an unmissable discussion. In North and eastern Indian states, mustard oil is widely used for its intense flavour; thus, numerous dishes are prepared with it. Bengali cuisine, one of the most popular regional cuisines of India, is known for the fantastic use of mustard oil and is a staple cooking medium for most dishes originating from the state of West Bengal, as well as its neighbouring states like Assam, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand etc., as well as East Bengal, which is now called as Bangladesh.

Most popular Bengali Dishes like ‘Sorsho Illish’, ‘Macher Jhol’, ‘Doi Mach’, ‘Shukto’, ‘Aloo Posto’, ‘Baingan Bhaja’, ‘Chingri Malai’ etc., use mustard oil. In Bihar, the State’s famous dish, ‘Litti’, is served with; Chokha, made from Potatoes or Eggplant, raw onions, and Mustard oil. ‘Masor Tenga, or an ‘Aloo Pithika’ In Assam, ‘Macha Ghanta’, or a ‘Chhatu Besara’ in Odisha are a few common examples of dishes using mustard oil. In Northeast Indian states, too, Mustard oil is commonly used for frying and preparing curries.

In North India, the famed tandoori marination uses Mustard oil, providing it with the defining flavour, making it a worldwide culinary phenomenon. Various Punjabi and Kashmiri dishes also use Mustard oil for cooking, frying, and tempering. The ‘Haak Saag; of Kashmir is one of my favourite dishes from the northern state, and the flavour of mustard oil in the delicious ‘Haak saag’ is simply irresistible. Mustard oil is also widely used to temper Indian Pickles; thus, the flavour and taste of mustard oil find their way to most dining tables serving Indian food across the globe.

Coconut Oil

India has a long coastline, and coconut is one of the most versatile culinary ingredients, which grows all along the coast. Coconut is used in Indian cuisines as grated coconut, coconut paste, coconut milk, coconut water, and coconut flesh, and even its coir and shell are utilised for useful purposes. With the large production of coconut in coastal India, producing coconut and using its oil is inevitable. It forms the base of delicious coastal cuisines of India, especially the South Indian states. It’s hard to imagine the delightful cuisine of Kerala without using coconut oil. The flavour and aroma of coconut oil provide the dishes cooked in it with a distinctive culinary appeal. Having a high smoking point, it’s ideal for high-heat cooking and, thus, makes for an ideal cooking medium for frying. Be it a ‘Kerala Parota’ or a ‘Meen Moilee’, dosas, or fried fish, coconut oil is the staple oil to cook various delicacies in Kerala and the coastal areas of other southern states.

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Various other cooking mediums are used for diverse flavours across the different culinary regions of India. Sometimes as a base oil or in combination with other cooking mediums. Butter is often used to prepare various dishes, especially in Punjab. A dollop of butter can be found carefully placed over dishes like ‘Paratha’ or ‘Makki di Roti’. The famed butter chicken needs no introduction. The role of butter in preparing the luscious makhani gravy, or even in basting the tandoori chicken as it gets roasted inside the tandoor, provides an addictive flavour. Similarly, many Punjabi and North Indian dishes use butter either in the cooking process or as an addition or topping on prepared dishes as a finishing touch.

Sesame or gingelly oil is another widely used cooking medium, especially in southern India. The nutty flavour of sesame and its health quotient makes it a favoured oil for preparing many dishes requiring shallow or deep frying. Dishes like dosas, vadas, fried fritters, curries etc., make good use of sesame oil for cooking and tempering with spices. Sesame oil is also the preferred oil for pickles in South India.

Groundnut oil is another nutty-flavoured oil used in South India, providing a wholesome flavour. Groundnut oil has a high smoking point, thus, ideal for high-heat cooking and deep frying. Some delicious Andhra, Telangana, and Tamilnadu dishes are prepared using groundnut oil and can be found in many home kitchens.

Various other oils are available and are used regularly in Indian homes for cooking. Sunflower oil, Rice bran oil, soybean oil, canola oil etc., are used as per individual and dietary preferences of families. As being sold as a famous brand called Dalda, Vanaspati Ghee is another cooking medium widely used in India for its similar ghee in flavour; however, being cost-effective and with a longer shelf life. In a lot of street food dishes around India, where frying is required, vanaspati ghee is used for its ghee-like texture, flavour, and low cost. Many street vendors selling chaats, biryani, samosas, kachoris etc., use Vanaspati ghee. However, the mark of good quality always remains the use of pure desi ghee prepared from cow’s milk, and the dishes prepared in desi ghee are sold at a higher price.

With so many different cooking mediums being used in India, Indian food gets unique oils and fats to cook and extract the best flavours from different spices used in the regional cuisines of India. Often, a particular oil used in the recipe of a dish is irreplaceable by any other oil or fat. Thus, the authenticity of cooking lies as much in the cooking process as in the right ingredients, and the cooking medium is as essential as any other aspect of cooking. So, use the right cooking oil for local and authentic flavours, and enjoy India’s diverse and fantastic cuisines.

Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.