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With so many different unique oils and fats to cook to extract the best flavors from different spices, a certain oil used in a dish's recipe is irreplaceable for another oil or fat.
Culinary diversity is one of the main reasons why India is considered a gastronomic powerhouse. Indian cuisine is based on varied ingredients, from spices to vegetables, lentils to meat and millet to rice.
Understanding the best methods of preparing culinary ingredients is where the true wisdom of cooking lies, and the cooking medium plays a vital role in providing the ideal base for any dish.
Different oils and fats are used at different stages of cooking, achieving the optimal flavors of the ingredient and transferring the flavor of the oil or fat to the dish.
It is wise to analyze the different cooking media used and how they are used in Indian culinary practices.
In most kitchens, 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.
Ghee is prepared from the butter which is simmered to evaporate water and milk solids to prepare a nutty and richly clarified form.
Tempering ghee on top of dishes such as dal, sambhar and khichdi is a typical Indian measure of good quality preparation and is almost always an obligatory finishing touch. Many Indian sweet dishes are considered good quality only because they are prepared in ghee.
'Ghee Bhath', or 'Neychoru' (in Kerala) is a typical dish prepared with rice and ghee in the South Indian states, where ghee is poured over rice with podi (spices, chillies and lentil powder), especially in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
In North India, Biryanis and Pulao are often prepared with ghee, while in most homes, Parathas and tawa rotis are prepared with ghee or smeared on it before serving. Ghee as a cooking medium is common for dishes like Pooris and Kachoris. You can find it everywhere outside shops in Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, advertising the use of pure desi ghee to ensure the quality of the food and the trust of their customers.
Even with meat preparations, cooking meat in nutty and rich ghee makes for a delicious preparation, with the rich 'Roghan' floating on top of the dishes making us salivate at first sight. Tempering ghee boosts the flavor many times whether it is 'Nahari' of Delhi or ghee wala meat prepared in Punjab's Dhabas. Desi ghee is therefore indispensable in Indian cuisine.
Whenever we talk about the flavors of Indian cuisine, the use of mustard oil is a discussion not to be missed. In North and East Indian states, mustard oil is widely used for its intense flavor; so many dishes are prepared with it.
Bengali cuisine, one of the most popular regional cuisines of India, is known for its fantastic use of mustard oil and is an important cooking medium for most of the dishes native to the state of West Bengal as well as its neighboring states like Assam, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand etc. as well as East Bengal which is now called Bangladesh.
The 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 famous dish of the state, '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 some common examples of dishes that use mustard oil. Mustard oil is also widely used in Northeast Indian states for baking and preparing curries.
In North India, the famous tandoori marination uses mustard oil, which gives it the defining flavor, making it a global culinary phenomenon.
Several Punjabi and Kashmiri dishes also use mustard oil for cooking, frying and tempering. The 'Hook Saag; or Kashmir is one of my favorite dishes from the northern state, and the taste of mustard oil in the delicious 'Haak saag' is simply irresistible.
Mustard oil is also widely used to temper Indian pickles; for example, the taste of mustard oil finds its way into most dining tables where Indian food is served around the world.
India has a long coastline and coconut is one of the most versatile culinary ingredients, growing all along the coast. Coconut is used in Indian cooking as shredded coconut, coconut paste, coconut milk, coconut water and coconut meat, and even the coconut and husk are used for beneficial purposes.
With the large production of coconut on the coast of India, producing coconut and using the oil is inevitable. It forms the basis of delicious coastal cuisines of India, especially the South Indian states.
It is hard to imagine the delicious cuisine of Kerala without using coconut oil. The taste and aroma of coconut oil give the dishes prepared in it a special culinary appeal.
Because it has a high smoke point, it is ideal for high-heat cooking and thus makes an ideal cooking medium for deep-frying. Be it a 'Kerala Parota' or a 'Meen Moilee', dosas or fried fish, coconut oil is the main oil to cook various delicacies in Kerala and the coastal regions of other southern states.
Sesame oil is another widely used cooking medium, especially in South India. Sesame's nutty flavor and its health quotient make it a favorite oil for cooking many dishes that require shallow or deep-fried cooking.
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 use in pickles in South India.
Groundnut oil is another nutty flavored oil used in South India that imparts a healthy taste. Peanut oil has a high smoke point, making it ideal for high-heat cooking and deep-frying.
Some delicious Andhra, Telangana and Tamilnadu dishes are prepared with peanut oil and can be found in many home kitchens.
There are several other oils available that are regularly used in Indian homes for cooking. Sunflower oil, rice bran oil, soybean oil, rapeseed oil, etc. are used according to individual and dietary preferences of families.
Vanaspati Ghee, which is sold as a famous brand called Dalda, is another cooking medium widely used in India due to the similar taste of ghee; however, cost-effective and with a longer shelf life.
Vanaspati ghee is used in many street food dishes across India that require deep frying because of its ghee-like texture, taste and low cost. Many street vendors selling chaats, biryani, samosas, kachoris etc. use Vanaspati ghee.
However, the hallmark 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 used in India, Indian food is given unique oils and fats to cook and extract the best flavors from various spices used in India's regional cuisines.
Often, a particular oil used in a dish's recipe is irreplaceable for another oil or fat.
So the authenticity of cooking lies as much in the cooking process as in the right ingredients, and the cooking medium is just as essential as any other aspect of cooking. So use the right oil for local and authentic flavors and enjoy the diverse and fantastic cuisines of India.
See our range of oils here.