Mustard oil is good. Mustard oil is bad. Coconut oil is dreadful. Coconut oil is fantastic. Olive oil, on the other hand, is consistently virtuous. Apparently, it will fix your heart, make you thin, heal your family and walk your dog.
It’s astonishing how vociferous health gurus can get about cooking oil brands. Much of the hysteria is dedicated to making sinners and saints out of various blameless oils. Take mustard oil, loved by Bengalis for its intense, almost nutty flavour. Till popular opinion decreed that everyone should stop using it because it’s bad for the heart. Then came the discovery that it’s rich in omega-3 and antioxidants, which made it good for your body.
Confused? Well, that’s nothing compared to the coconut oil saga. For decades Malayalis happily fried everything in the fragrant, rich oil. Then, talk of saturated fats started doing the rounds, and suddenly it became the symbol for all that is perceived to be unhealthy about desi cooking. (Though one look at the old and vigorous Ayurvedic practitioners brought up on a steady diet of asli ghee, full-fat milk and coconut oil easily proves otherwise.) Till very recently, cooking with coconut oil was guaranteed to make most people recoil in horror. Now suddenly there’s a buzz about virgin coconut oil and all its fabulous benefits. This version of the oil (extracted from fresh coconuts and processed with no chemicals) is said to — believe it or not — actually boost your metabolism.
However, the popularly-acknowledged kingpin of all healthy oils is olive oil. If all the muscle behind its marketing is to be believed, it’s the panacea for all ills. It prevents heart disease. Lowers cholesterol. Virgin olive oil has a strong antioxidant effect, protecting against free radicals and the formation of cancer.
While it is true that olive oil is one of the healthiest of oils, it’s certainly not a complete solution. Every gram of oil — regardless of what kind of oil it is — contains nine calories. Which means one tablespoon is roughly 120 calories. What you really need to do to get healthy is reduce your intake of oil. Weight loss and health, unfortunately, all boil down to that same old mantra: fewer calories, more exercise.
The biggest problem with olive oil is that it is far more expensive than any of the other oils available in the Indian market. Honestly, if you can’t afford it, that’s alright. The truth is, as all our grandmothers have always known; there are plenty of other options. Try alternating between oils like refined peanut, rice bran, corn, gingelly and sunflower, just to name a few. Nutritionists now recommend consuming a mix of about three kinds of oils as each provides you with different essential fatty acids.
The second big hitch is that Indians feel olive oil’s flavours don’t work with Indian food. That’s probably true with dishes where the oil is a main component of the flavour, like the Bengali mashed potatoes with mustard oil or Kerala avial, which is topped with a spoon of sizzling coconut oil. But with a number of regular Indian dishes it actually works reasonably well.
Celebrity adman Prahlad Kakkar, a self-confessed “man of great excesses,” is an enthusiastic promoter of olive oil. On a cooking demonstration, which was part of a road show organised by the International Olive Council, he said “When you warm brandy, you release its secrets. It’s the same with a good olive oil: it’s fruity, it’s pure, you know it’s good for you because it lingers.” As he sautéed onions and garlic for baingan bhartha, their delicious aromas filled the room. “Olive oil’s like pure desi ghee,” he said, “It makes you remember home.”
Even if you don’t come from Spain, apparently.