In my grandparents’ Mumbai home, a small cast-iron bowl was reserved for heating gingelly oil with whole black peppercorns for “oil bath” purposes. A spot in the balcony, away from walls and furniture, was designated for the weekly oil massage. My weekly head massage was my grandfather’s job. As a child, it was not something I looked forward to. It was no fun to be soaked in oil for an hour or so. Moreover, while washing the hair, the shikakai and reetha would invariably seep into the eyes, making them smart and burn.
After the bath, it truly felt like the calm after the storm. I would feel ravenous and the afternoon nap that followed was true bliss. Gingelly oil, as sesame oil is known in the south, was used not only for massage but also in everyday cooking.
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At home, dosas always use sesame oil. Steaming hot idlis are served with a generous drizzle of raw sesame oil. It is also the favoured oil to mix molagapodi (gunpowder). As a child, I had a special standing request for my grandma—never use the strongly flavoured gingelly oil in my idlis or dosas. I preferred the unflavoured refined oil. If you ask me now, though, my very reason to eat an idli or dosa is to enjoy the deep aromas of cold-pressed gingelly oil.
Sesame oil is the olive oil of south India. Its complex, earthy flavour is like no other, tough for children to appreciate or love. It does grow on you, however, and you look forward to its characteristic aroma in certain dishes, like tamarind rice or kuzhambu. Many traditional south Indian pickles are made with sesame oil as it is said to balance out the heat from the chillies, giving the pickles a more rounded flavour. It also has a long shelf life.
In Tamil cooking, kuzhambu/kulambu is a light tamarind-based curry made without adding cooked dal. Tamarind extract forms the backbone of this curry, which uses a fair bit of sesame oil for the tempering and for frying the vegetables, like small brinjals or sun-dried ingredients like cluster beans, turkey berries or nightshade. Kulambu can also be fish- or meat-based, or a combination, with vegetables like brinjal, drumstick, shallots, etc. The unctuous layer of umami-rich sesame oil floating on top of the kuzhambu is sure to send your salivary glands into hyperactive mode.
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Gojju, a tamarind-based curry from Karnataka, tastes great when it’s made with sesame oil. While it can be made with regular vegetables like ladies’ finger and bitter gourd, it can also be given an exotic touch with ingredients like orange peel, pineapple or grapes. Try out the gojju made using bhindi along with steamed rice for a comfort meal.
2 tbsp packed tamarind
250g bhindi (tender)
4-5 tbsp sesame oil
A pinch of asafoetida
Half tsp black mustard seeds
Quarter tsp fenugreek seeds
2 dried red chillies
1 sprig curry leaves
1-2 tbsp sambhar powder*
1 tbsp crushed jaggery
1 tsp salt
Soak the tamarind in one cup of hot water for 30 minutes. Squeeze and extract all the pulp into the water. Pass through a sieve to collect the extract in a bowl. Repeat with quarter-cup water, squeezing the tamarind to extract any remaining pulp. Add it to the bowl and discard the remaining tamarind.
Wash and dry the bhindi with an absorbent cloth. Top and tail the bhindi and cut into 1cm thick slices. Heat 2-3 tbsp of oil in a heavy pan. Fry the bhindi slices on a medium to high flame, stirring continuously until it is browned in places and half-cooked. Remove the bhindi to a bowl.
Heat the remaining 2 tbsp oil in the pan. Add asafoetida, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, dried red chillies and curry leaves. Once the mustard seeds splutter, fry the sambhar powder in the oil on a low flame for a few seconds.
Pour in the prepared tamarind extract (around one cup), along with jaggery and salt. Let this come to a boil. Reduce the flame and simmer for around five minutes. Add up to half a cup of hot water if the masala in the pan gets too thick. Transfer the bhindi to the pan, stir to combine well. Simmer the gojju for another five minutes so the bhindi is fully cooked and absorbs the flavours. The result should be thick but pourable, with a fine balance of salty, heat, tangy and sweet. You can adjust the flavours as you prepare the dish.
Serve hot with rice and a drizzle of raw sesame oil.
It can also be prepared with bitter- gourd slices. Gojju will stay a week in the fridge if kept in a clean dry container.
*Bisi bele baath masala /powder also works very well in this recipe.
(FLAVOUR) BOMB SESAME OIL DRESSING
4 tbsp sesame oil
1 sprig curry leaves, finely minced
1 dried red chilli, crushed coarsely
Quarter tsp mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 tsp white sesame seeds
1 tbsp molagapodi (gunpowder)
1 tsp powdered jaggery
1-2 tbsp lime juice
In a small pan, combine all the ingredients except lime juice and warm it over low heat for around five minutes. Turn off the flame and stir in the lime juice. As the molagapodi already has salt, check for salt once the oil is ready and mix in the required quantity accordingly.
You can also prepare this dressing in a larger quantity, using garlic powder instead of grated garlic. If you are new to the flavour of sesame oil, replace half the quantity with neutral-flavoured oil to get a milder dressing.
Use this dressing on roasted vegetables, lentil-grain based salads, boiled potatoes or to drizzle over idlis or dosas.
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Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods. @saffrontrail