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Cooking Oils for Indian Food

One of the most important things that will affect the flavour of your Indian food are the cooking oils that you use.

The two most common cooking oils in Indian food are ghee and mustard oil. Others which are used are those of coconut oil , peanut (groundnut) oil and sesame oil (gingelly, til). Modern arrivals are sunflower oil, rapeseed (canola) and soybean.

A word about Smoke Points

The smoke point is the temperature at which any fat starts to smoke (guess what the flame point is).

Apart from the taste, the advantage of all the oils used in Indian cooking is that they have very high smoke points (above 232C/450F) this means that meat and other ingredients will 'seal' very quickly when cooked.

A high smoke point is particularly important for deep frying which is a high temperature operation - this is why all good fish and chip shops use palm oil rather than standard vegetable oil - it has a higher smoke point.

Nearly all cooking oils should not be heated to smoking as this impairs both the flavour and the nutritional values. (At the smoke point, the fat breaks down into glycerol and free fatty acids).

Mustard oil on the other hand is unique in that should be heated till it just starts to smoke. This actually improves both the flavour and the nutritional values.

How heathy are fats and oils

Well it does appear that over the years we have been misinformed (shock, horror); our views of saturated fats and unsaturated fats have been manipulated for commercial reasons.

In the 1950s experiments were done which seemed to link animal fats to heart disease. Unfortunately these experiments were done on rabbits which are vegetarian - they don't have the biology to deal with animal fats, so it shouldn't be suprising that they keeled over. This didn't stop producers of corn oil jumping on this and advocating a complete switch to vegetable oils; from butter to margarine etc. The edible oils industry in America basically infiltrated every food and health agency (including the FDA) and over 50 years managed to demonize all animal fats (and any other competition) and promote their own products.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, before vegetable cooking oils were available, our diet consisted of meat, butter, cream, eggs and all the things that we have been told are bad for us; and no one died of heart disease. The first heart attack in the USA was recorded in 1921.

In an experiment carried out in 1957 it was shown that a 'healthy' diet avoiding all these 'bad' things did indeed result in lower cholesterol than a control group which carried on eating eggs and meat and so on. What they tried to hide was that eight of the heathy eaters died from heart attacks where none in the control group did. In fact the link between cholesterol and heart disease had been disproved as early as 1936 but as public opinion and habit is shaped by commerce rather than science, this was buried.

For myself, I've just got bored listening to all the arguments and trying to work out which vested interest they support and I eat what I like and enjoy it.

Common Indian Cooking Oils

Mustard Oil
Coconut Oil
Sesame Oil

Peanut oil

This is very popular (and very good) for Chinese cooking, in India it is used mostly in the North and West.

It is very good for frying and again has a high smoke point. It imparts the flavour of the peanuts themselves (good for cooking satay).

It is a mixed fat and not considered all that nutritionally brilliant. Interestingly it is claimed that in its refined state it does not produce the allergic reaction to peanuts that some people have (not sure I'd like to try this personally).

Other Oils

You can use sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, or mixed vegetable oil if you wish, it won't ruin the food but to me they really don't do anything except fry the food. (Am I being a snob about this? - yes probably).

For me, olive oil (which I love in other cooking) does not go well; it has a low smoke point and I don't think the taste compliments the flavours of most Indian food.

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