I was 11. My mom, baby sister and a couple of relatives were on the Gitanjali Express from Mumbai to Kolkata. The train was a few stations away from the final destination when a food vendor came into our compartment selling what looked like bhel puri. Being a Mumbai kid, chaats like bhel puri and sev puri were my big favourites but I was seldom allowed to eat street food by my hyper-cautious grandparents with whom I lived. Now having endured the 30-plus hour train journey, I have a feeling my mom felt sympathetic towards me and bought me the “bhel puri’ in the train. I was delighted to get my way with mom and hastily chomped on a mouthful of this bhel from a paper cone. My instant reaction was, “What in the world is this?” It was my first brush with the pungent taste of mustard oil along with the piquant taste-bud numbing chopped green chillies. Whatever this was, it was not even the same pin code as the bhel puri I loved. To say I hated it, is an understatement. Years later, I realised this was jhal muri and not my beloved bhel puri.
Like they say, everything you hated in childhood, turns into adulthood favourites.
I don’t remember what that turning point in my life was when I started stocking mustard oil in my kitchen, liberally dousing dishes like begun pora (Bengali-style roasted brinjals) and jhal muri with this liquid gold. I even use mustard oil as a part of the oil component in salad dressings (Kohlrabi Salad With Kashmiri Flavours, using ginger and fennel powders). The sharp and pungent flavour can be attributed to allyl isothiocyanate.
Here’s why I advocate for using robustly flavoured oils over refined ones to elevate your cooking. Refined cooking oil lacks any inherent aroma or flavour, it’s the spices and aromatics you introduce to the dish that infuse into it. However, incorporating just 1-2 teaspoons of mustard oil into a dish brings an unmistakable aroma and flavour, enhancing the overall taste. With a mere teaspoon contributing 40 calories, opting for a full-flavoured oil like mustard oil provides the most value for your calorie investment. This principle extends to other flavour-rich oils such as coconut oil and gingelly oil, which are commonly used in south Indian cuisine.
The usage of mustard oil is rare in south Indian cooking, which I find ironical given how no self-respecting south Indian tadka (tempering) is complete without the use of black mustard seeds. It is liberally used in north Indian, Bengali, Assamese, and Bangladeshi and Pakistani cuisines, lending the dishes a characteristic flavour and zing. The Punjabi pickles made using mustard oil have a distinct aroma and flavour, making it a delectable addition to everyday meals.
There is just one south Indian pickle I know of that makes use of this pungent oil, a version of avakaya pachadi or the Andhra mango pickle. There are recipes that also use sesame oil (gingelly oil) in this Andhra mango pickle.
Mustard oil emerges as a great choice for pickles for several compelling reasons. Its strong aroma and rich flavour stand up to the variety of spices used in pickling mixes. Having a high smoking point of 250 degrees Celsius, it withstands high heat, making it an ideal candidate for pickling. The traditional technique is to heat the oil until smoking and cooling it before adding it to pickles, to reduce its sharpness a notch. The same compound that is responsible for its distinct flavour also acts as an excellent preservative with anti-microbial properties that prevent spoilage of pickles, retaining its freshness even when kept for over a year on the kitchen shelf.
This preservative property of mustard oil can be used to store lentils and pulses for longer periods of time. You may notice that some dals and pulses like chana dal, whole black urad dal, whole green moong catch weevils and spoil rather quickly. For 1 kilogram of pulses, use 2 teaspoons of mustard oil and rub it well over the pulses to coat thoroughly. Store it in an airtight container and it will stay for as long as a year with no spoilage.
Here are two recipes for you to try with mustard oil.
2 medium-sized radishes
2 medium-sized carrots (use red carrots if available)
1 tbsp methia masala (recipe below)
2 tbsp mustard oil
Peel and cut the vegetables into batons. Add 1-2 tbsp of methia masala and mustard oil and toss well to combine. Serve immediately or refrigerate and serve within two-three days.
Methia masala: 5 tbsp mustard oil; quarter cup rai kuria (split mustard seeds); half cup methi kuria (split fenugreek seeds); 1 tsp asafoetida powder; quarter cup red chilli powder (Byadagi or Kashmiri); quarter cup powdered rock salt
Heat the mustard oil until smoking in a small pan and allow to cool. Combine all the remaining ingredients in a bowl. Pour the cooled oil over the spice mix and stir well to combine. Store in an airtight container. Use to make instant pickles or as a condiment over khichdi, curd rice, khakhras, etc.
An Assamese version of mashed potatoes with a sharp kick
Makes 6-8 balls
4 medium-sized potatoes, boiled
1 large onion, finely chopped
2-3 green chillies, or more
Handful of coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 tsp salt
2-3 tbsp mustard oil
Peel and mash the potatoes. Add in the onion, green chillies, coriander leaves and salt. Mash and knead to infuse the flavours into the potatoes. Drizzle the mustard oil and mix one last time. Divide into 6-8 portions and shape into balls. Serve with hot steamed rice.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). She posts @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.