If there's one thing that is common to Indian kitchens, it's the sizzle and sputter of something being cooked in hot oil. No matter where you're from or what kind of regional cuisine you prefer, if it's Indian then it needs oil and more often than not, something needs to be fried in that oil. This is what makes the health conscious among us shudder at the thought of traditional Indian food. But oil doesn't always pave the way to weight gain and heart attacks. Some varieties of cooking oil are actually healthy, say nutritionists
Nutritionists, however, have varying opinions when it comes to which oil is the healthiest. Naini Setalvad, who describes herself as a health and lifestyle disease management consultant, recommends using ghee made from cow's milk, unrefined coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, unrefined sesame oil and unrefined mustard oil. But Niti Desai, nutritionist at Mumbai's Cumballa Hill Hospital and Heart Institute does not think highly of either ghee or coconut oil.
Both, however, agree that an oil-free diet is not a good idea. Desai says that one should consume half a kilogram of oil a month. Setalvad, who is staunchly against deep-fried food, said that oil is a critical part of a healthy diet. “Consuming MUFA, PUFA, omega-3 fatty acids and saturated fats is essential for the body.” she said.
Here's an oil-by-oil guide so that you can take an informed decision.
“Sunflower or safflower refined oils, staple in most households for health reasons, may not actually be healthy,” said Niti Desai, nutritionist at Mumbai's Cumballa Hill Hospital and Heart Institute.
“It is high in polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) and omega-6 fatty acids, which increases cholesterol.” Although high in PUFA and omega 6, cottonseed, groundnut, sesame and corn oil are still healthier than sunflower refined oil.
Ghee is one traditional oil that can make any Indian dish or snack tasty, but it is tagged a villian as it is highly fattening,” said Setalvad. According to her, “Ghee made from cow’s milk has good quality saturated fat that has numerous benefits for your body.” However, it should be used in moderation, warned Setalvad.
Executive chef Ajay Chopra from Hotel Westin, Mumbai, champions the cause of ghee because it adds a wonderful flavour to the food. “Imagine how flat would korma taste without ghee,” he said.
Mustard oil has a bad reputation for its distinctive aroma but this underrated oil has many health benefits. It is high in monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and omega 3 fatty acids that check on bad cholesterol. Also, because it has a high smoking point, it's ideal for frying. “Good for your heart and a great flavour enhancer,” said Ajay Chopra, executive chef at Hotel Westin in Mumbai. “The best way to use mustard oil is to heat it till its smoking point and then lightly sprinkle water on it to cool it a little. After reaching the smoking point, mustard loses its sharp taste.”
One traditional, Indian oil that has made a comeback in recent times: coconut oil. Setalvad recommends that only unrefined coconut oil should be used. “Coconut oil is a wonderful medium for cooking food. Since we specialize in South Indian dishes, using coconut oil gives ethnicity to the dishes prepared,” said Shaikh Abdul Qader, executive chef at The Leela Mumbai.
Contrary to popular belief, olive oil isn't necessarily a healthy option in an Indian kitchen. Desai said that although it has high levels of MUFA, extra virgin and virgin olive oil are low in omega 3 fatty acids and should not be used for Indian cooking. If you're vegetarian and eat Indian food, your diet lacks the essential omega 3 fatty acids and so, the oil you use should make up for this. Also, olive oil has a low smoking point, which makes it unsuitable for Indian cooking.
Unrefined oil is the best
When oils are processed and refined, they are bleached and deodorised to become colourless, odourless, and often tasteless in order to increase their shelf life. This also strips the oil of molecules like antioxidants which makes an oil healthy. This is why you should use pure, unrefined oils, which retain their health benefits. Unrefined mustard and sesame oil are recommended by Setalvad.
There are alternatives for those who can't get hold of unrefined oil. “Rice bran, canola, soybean are the healthiest options of cooking oil,” said Desai. “They have good MUFA to PUFA ratio and a balanced omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids ratio.”
Chef Chopra pointed out that these unusual oils have benefits from a cooking perspective. “Rice bran does not become viscous or rancid even after being used multiple times for frying,” he said, adding that the neutral taste added no flavour to the food. If you're unsure about canola oil because of its smell, Chopra said that it actually doesn't impart any flavour. Oils like olive, corn, flaxseed, walnut and avocado are very healthy and can be drizzled on salads or added to dressings.