I have been asked so many times over the years which oil should be used when cooking Indian food. Since there are so many different oils available at specialty stores as well as standard groceries, I wanted to learn facts in order to make wise recommendations about which ones are the best and which should be avoided in Indian cuisine.

First, let me share with you the facts:

  • None of the oils I researched contain trans fat.
  • The healthiest oil that is considered high in both mono- and poly-unsaturated fats is canola oil (these are the good fats in which high levels are desired).
  • Olive oil (regular and extra virgin varieties) is high in mono-unsaturated fat which is also considered healthy.
  • Corn, safflower, soybean, sesame, sunflower and plain vegetable oil are also healthy due to their high levels of poly-unsaturated fats.
  • Coconut oil, palm oil and ghee (clarified butter) are high in saturated fat (unhealthy fat).

The purpose of oil in a recipe should determine which one is used.

 

Frying

Oils with a high smoke point, the temperature at which the oil starts smoking, should be used for frying.

Canola, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils are excellent picks due to their light flavor. The flavor in extra virgin olive oil, for example, imposes too much flavor to the food being cooked.

Ghee and palm oil are often used in Indian cooking because of the flavors they give the items being fried as well as their tolerance for high heat.

 

Seasoning

Many Indian recipes use specific oils to bring unique flavor to the food. Coconut, sesame, mustard and palm oils as well as ghee are added either in early stages of cooking or as a last step for their signature flavors

 

Marinades and Dressings

Most oils can be used to marinate food and in dressings. I would avoid the ones I listed as Seasonings due to their unique flavor.

 

Bottom Line

So, what is the best oil for cooking Indian food? I recommend any healthy light oil for use in Indian cooking. I do not recommend using olive oil because of its strong flavor and higher price.

 

Oil Comparison Chart

Good Fats Bad Fats
Oil Taste Use Smoke Point Mono- unsat Fat Poly- unsat Fat Sat Fat Trans Fat
Canola Light taste, great for Indian cooking Sautéing, frying at high temps, grilling, baking 425ºF High High Low None
Corn Light corn flavor Frying at medium temps, baking 400ºF Low High Low None
Coconut Coconut flavor for light and delicate dishes not a general cooking oil Seasoning, replacement for dairy products, baking, sautéing 350ºF Low Low High None
Extra virgin olive Very strong, not for Indian cooking Seasoning uncooked dishes, marinades, dressings 325ºF High Low Low None
Ghee Buttery flavor often used in Indian cooking Seasoning for breads, dosas and rice, frying at high temps 400ºF Low Low High None
Olive Strong, not for Indian cooking Seasoning uncooked dishes, marinades, dressings 325ºF High Low Low None
Palm Light flavor Frying 450ºF Low Low High None
Peanut Light nutty flavor Frying, seasoning, frilling, sautéing 440ºF High Low Low None
Safflower No flavor Frying at high temps, sautéing 475ºF High High Low None
Sesame Nutty flavor Frying, sautéing, marinades 350ºF High High Low None
Soybean One of the most commonly used oils, no flavor Frying, seasoning, grilling, baking, sautéing 450ºF Low High Low None
Sunflower One of the most commonly used oils, no flavor Frying, seasoning, grilling, baking, sautéing 450ºF Low High Low None
Vegetable oil A blend of other oils, light flavor Frying, seasoning, grilling, baking, sautéing 325ºF High High Low None

 

 

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While I’m on the subject of banana leaves, I thought I would share a traditional way to serve Indian food that is also a fun family craft.

 

Bowls made from banana leaves in the Indian style.

Bowls made from banana leaves in the Indian style.

 

  • Wipe a fresh banana leaf with a damp towel to remove any debris.
  • Cut out the center stem from the leaf leaving two long halves.
  • Blanch the leaf pieces in boiling water for 30 seconds. Dry and let cool.
  • Cut squares from each leaf half.
  • Place the square with the shiny side down so it ends up on the outside.
  • Fold each corner to the center to make a half-sized square.
  • Fold the top corner and bottom corner to the center of the square so the points of the new folds overlap the corners from the first folds.
  • Carefully lift the folded pieces and secure the new fold to the first fold flaps using either two toothpicks or a stapler. Traditionally they would be tied with strips of fibers from the stem of the leaf.
  • Lift the sides to open the bowl.
  • Fill with your favorite dish.

 

Banana leaf bowls are used to serve Indian food.

Banana leaf bowls are used to serve Indian food.

 

 

These cute bowls can also be used for presenting gifts or holding small treasures like jewelry or shells. They last for a long time and are recyclable!

 

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As I look outside my window I see a dozen beautiful banana trees with large green leaves waving in the breeze. Soon it will freeze in north Texas; my leaves will shrivel and turn brown, and the trunks will collapse when their internal cell structures can no longer hold them upright. This is the time of year when I go outside and “harvest” some leaves to tide me over until next spring when I have access to a fresh crop of leaves.

  

Freezing banana leaves

Preparing banana leaves to be frozen is a very simple process. I usually select about a dozen leaves that are bright green, not torn and have a minimal amount of yellow or brown edges. I want my leaves to be as perfect as possible. Here are the steps to freezing them:

  • Clean the leaves with a wet paper towel to remove any obvious dirt.
  • Dry the leaves with a clean paper towel.
  • Carefully cut the central vein out of each leaf so you will have two long thin leaf strips. I cut them on a cutting board so I can run the knife across the leave without damaging my counter.
     
Fresh banana leaves getting ready to be blanched and frozen.

Fresh banana leaves getting ready to be blanched and frozen.

 

  • Cut off any thin strips that tore when the vein was removed. At this point you may want to cut some of the leaves in half or thirds, depending on how you plan to use them in the future.
  • Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil.
  • Carefully immerse each leaf piece, one at a time, in the pot and blanch it for 30 seconds. Remove from the pot with tongs and carefully lay them flat on the counter until they are dry.
     
    Blanched banana leaves ready to be frozen for future use.

    Blanched banana leaves ready to be frozen for future use.

     

  • Fold and lay the leaves in a pile. Place them in a freezer zip top bag and set in the freezer. Often I use several bags so the leaves are not damaged by freezer burn as I remove individual leaves.

Thawing banana leaves

When you are ready to use the leaves, simply place one or two on the counter. Take care not to let the leaves tear until they come to room temperature. The leaves will be soft, pliable and ready to use in a short time. Dry the leaves before using them.

  

Alternative to freezing the leaves yourself

Now that you have read through my entire post, frozen packages of banana leaves are available at many Asian grocery stores. This can save you some time or give you an option if the leaves are not available where you live.

 

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India has been using natural, disposable plates and cooking wrap for generations, dating back to the Middle Ages. They are still used today for their practicality and tradition.

 

While visting the spice farm in Wayanad earlier this year, the plates on which we ate our lunch had been pressed out of lotus leaves. They were strong enough to hold a plateful of rice and curries from a buffet. Most South Indian weddings include meals for hundreds of guests all served on banana leaves.

 

Leaves are also used to enhance the presentation of food. A piece of leaf can be slipped under some of the food on one’s plate to complement the color or something (often rice or noodles) can be partially wrapped in it to make the presentation unique. They make quick and easy platters for presenting snacks at parties for no cost at all. Other than eating off of banana leaves, did you know they have several other uses in Indian cooking?

 

Fresh banana leaves getting ready to be blanched and frozen.

Fresh banana leaves getting ready to be blanched and frozen.

Steaming fish

In Kerala whole spiced fish are often wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed. The cooked fish takes on a delicate tea or grass flavor in addition to the original spices. These banana leaf wrapped packets make a stunning impression when presented on individual plates for a dinner party. When the package is opened, the steam and enticing aromas rush out into the air. Next week I will publish my recipe of the month, which is Banana Leaf Steamed Halibut. (It is very tasty.)

Steaming sweets

Just like steaming fish, several South Indian sweets are steamed in banana leaves. My cookbook, Kachi’s Kitchen, includes many recipes for banana leaf steamed sweets.

Grilling meat

A piece of banana leaf can be placed directly on the grill under the meat, like flaky fish, or vegetables to keep them from sticking to the grate or falling through into the fire. Since the piece of leaf takes the heat, the heat is more even and the meat doesn’t burn as quickly. The leaf also enhances the flavor of the food.

Keeping food from sticking

A piece of banana leaf would be placed on the bottom of a pot to keep food from sticking. This technique is still used today to make food healthier.

Protecting food

In the days before wax paper and plastic wrap, Indians would wrap their food in banana leave to keep it from drying out.


 
With all of these uses, I have to admit that Indian cooks have been very creative in using recyclable materials. 

 

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Paneer is fresh, soft cheese that has been popular across India since ancient times. It is often used as a substitute for meat in vegetarian recipes because it is high in protein. Easy to make at home with just a few ingredients and readily available tools, it is often compared to farmer cheese, the curd in cottage cheese and queso blanco.

 

Fresh homemade Indian cheese called paneer.

Fresh homemade Indian cheese called paneer.

 

Made since ancient times it is prepared in different ways across India. In North India (Bengal) it is sweetened and turned into a delicious dessert called Rasgoulas. Unsweetened cheese can be made soft or firm depending on the amount of water that is removed from the milk. The firmer cheese is often breaded and fried then served as a snack or in a curry.

 

Recipes with Paneer

Paneer is used in many Indian recipes but some of the most popular ones are Saag Paneer (creamed spinach with paneer), Mattar Paneer (peas with paneer) and Tikka Paneer (cubes of spiced paneer cooked in a tandoori oven). In addition to being used as an ingredient in a dish, it is also grilled as in Tikka Paneer or baked on pizza. It does not melt like other cheeses.

 

How to Make Paneer

Making paneer is very easy to do. Simply boil some milk and stir in a bit of lemon juice. The acid in the lemon will cause the curds (solids) to separate from the whey (water). The whey is drained off and the curds are pressed to form a cake of cheese. That is it! Some people add spices or other ingredients to create tasty varieties. 

 

Fresh paneer as the whey is separated from the curds.

Fresh paneer as the whey is separated from the curds.


Where to Buy Paneer

Fortunately one does not have to make paneer to be able to enjoy it. It is available in Indian grocery stores across the U.S. as well as on a few online stores. If you do not have access to it where you live, substitute tofu since it has a similar look and texture.

 

American Fast Food in India with Paneer

To cater to local tastes and dietary restrictions many U.S. based restaurant chains have incorporated vegetarian options to their menus including some that sell paneer include:  
 

  • McDonald’s offers the McSpicy Paneer Sandwich and BigSpicy Paneer Wrap which features a crispy and sizzling slice of tender paneer that has been breaded and deep-fried. 
  • Domino’s Pizza has a Peppy Paneer Pizza with chunks of paneer and spicy peppers on top.
  • Subway offers a Paneer Tikka sub with toasted marinated cheese slices. 


 Paneer is a tasty item that can be added to many recipes or eaten by itself.

 

Next week, I will publish my Paneer Makhani recipe that I know you and your family will love!

 

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Coconut tree right outside our door in Maui.

Coconut tree right outside our door in Maui.

During our recent Maui vacation my husband discovered that fresh coconuts were sold at the farmers’ market in Kahana just down the street from where we stayed. He was so excited by this that he would walk there early each morning to buy a fresh coconut still in its husk from a vendor who opens it with a machete. Armed with a straw and a large green coconut, he walks across the street to the beach to watch the sunrise. Every time I buy coconut in the store, I reserve the coconut water for him to drink. I always taste it to make sure the coconut is fresh.

 


Did you know that not all coconut water is the same? It isn’t. As a coconut matures its sweetness decreases. The sweetest stage occurs when it is about 40% ripe. It is known as tender coconut since the kernel is soft like jelly and can be eaten with a spoon. This is my husband’s favorite stage. When a coconut approaches 70% mature, they look full size. This is the stage at which he finds them in Maui. Not quite as sweet and the kernel has started to harden, he still finds these a treat. When a coconut is fully mature, the kernel has reached the hardness that is found in the grocery store. The water isn’t as sweet but it is still refreshing. The water in the red variety of tender coconuts that grows in his hometown in Kerala is even sweeter than the most common ones. The mature red coconut kernel is not used for cooking though.
 

 

Now that I’ve mentioned Kerala, this small state grows the most coconuts in the entire country of India, about half! India, on the other hand, ranks third in the world.

 

A boy on the street in Chennai selling coconuts.

A boy on the street in Chennai selling coconuts.

 

I have known for years that Indians love to drink coconut water, especially from tender coconuts. I saw people on the streets in Chennai, Kochi and Mumbai drinking it from bottles as well as husks. I suspect that if I asked a random person on the street what is the national drink of India, he would reply unhesitatingly, coconut water, of course!
 
 

A box of coconut water that can be purchased anywhere in India or the U.S.

A box of coconut water that can be purchased anywhere in India or the U.S.

In addition to health benefits of coconut milk in piña coladas. A bit of coconut water mixes nicely with vodka and juices, such as cranberry, lime or pomegranate. It can also be added to desserts for a rich taste. I have added a bit to cookies, puddings and ice cream before I freeze it.

 

The best thing about coconut water is you don’t have to break a coconut to get it. It is now available in bottles and small, individual serving juice boxes. The number of different brands and sizes that were available in my local Indian grocery surprised me. Once I noticed drink boxes of this refreshing drink, I started seeing it in every grocery store from Wal-Mart to Safeway. It looks like a new trend!

 

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Most abundant in India, tamarind, or puli in Malayalam and Tamil, is a fruit that grows in long brown pods on a medium-sized tree in many parts of the world.  When ripe, the insides become juicy and fleshy with a combination sweet and sour taste.  It can be eaten raw or cooked.  It is high in calcium and is thought to reduce cholesterol.

Tamarind pod that is used in many Indian recipes.

Tamarind pod that is used in many Indian recipes.

In my cookbook, Kachi’s Kitchen, it is used in Tamarind Chutney, Sambar, Rasam, Pulihodarai, Eggplant Curry, Sambar Satham (Sambar Rice), Vanghibath, Mulaga Curry and Pachamolagu and Inji (Green Chile and Ginger) Pickle.

Kachi used to make tamarind paste for years whenever it was needed for cooking.  She would buy a brick that was dried and pressed.  The procedure to make the paste follows:

1. Boil 2 tamarind pods in 4 or 5 cups of water for 10 minutes.  Allow it to cool.

2. Press the sides of the tamarind with the back of a spoon or use your fingers.  This softens the tamarind and makes it easier to remove the paste.  Squeeze the tamarind to extract the paste.  Strain the paste into a bowl.

3. Return the residue left in the strainer to the saucepan and add a half-cup of warm water.  Press again and extract the paste.

4. Repeat Step 3 at least three times.

5. After collecting the tamarind paste, refrigerate it for future use.
 
 

These days, she can buy tamarind paste in jars at Indian stores.  A teaspoon is usually enough when a recipe calls for tamarind.  She just dilutes it with a small amount of water before using. What a time saving idea! I have to admit that she prefers this traditional method of expressing tamarind paste for her Indian recipes.

Tamarind concentrate can be purchased in bottles or made from scratch.

Tamarind concentrate can be purchased in bottles or made from scratch.


 
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The morning after I arrived in Maui, I was stunned to see a huge banana flower on the tree right outside my door! Was it placed there just for me? I was amazed at the dramatic picture it made right on the tree. It was at least 18 inches long and 12 inches wide with a perfect dark red color. At first I couldn’t believe it was real because the ones I have seen in the Indian grocery stores were puny. Those were about 12 by 6 inches in size and didn’t have many layers of leaves. I think this one must weight several pounds based on how the flower and bananas were bending the stem downward.


 

Huge banana flower growing beneath a bunch of bananas.

Huge banana flower growing beneath a bunch of bananas.


My husband had described the stunning beauty of these flowers for years but I could not grasp the magnitude of what he was saying. Since banana trees grow all over India, this is a common site to the locals who have become accustomed to seeing them. The ones I had seen at the grocery were unimpressive so I was completely speechless upon finding this beauty.

 

Technically the banana flower is called an inflorescence. Inside each of the petals (really called bracts) are small flowers that will bloom as the bracts open. Unfortunately my beautiful flower wasn’t quite ready for that.

 

What an amazing sight to see right outside my door!

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Spices commonly used in Indian cooking.

Spices commonly used in Indian cooking.

Masala is the term for a mixture of spices and herbs widely used in Indian cooking that give each dish its own distinctive flavor, aroma and heat when mixed with oil or water to form a gravy or paste. They are custom roasted and blended for each dish like Chicken Masala, Masala Chai (Spiced Tea) or Chenna (Chickpea) Masala. Masalas can be blends of dry spices or a paste. Traditionally they were made at fresh home for use in the very near term so they didn’t loose their potency or flavor. Today they are available in every spice or grocery store. There are popular because they save time in roasting, grinding and mixing.

 

The most common masalas which I have seen or used are listed below. Trust me, there are many more…

 

Dry powder masalas:

  • Chaat masala – used to season fast food and condiments in north India. Made of cumin, mint, ajwain, sasfetida, salt, mango powder, cloves, ginger, chile, black peppercorns

  • Chai masala – used to brew spiced tea. Made of clove, cardamom, cinnamon, black peppercorns

  • Garam masala – used in non-vegetarian and some vegetarian dishes. Made of chiles, coriander, fennel seeds, cumin, cardamom, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon, bay leaves (see recipe)

  • Idli masala – used as an accompaniment to idlis, or rice cakes, that is mixed with a spoonful of oil. Made from red chiles, dal, asafetida, tamarind and salt.

  • Rasam masala – used to make Rasam, a south Indian lentil soup. Made of cumin, coriander, curry leaves, asafetida, fenugreek, turmeric, chili powder, black peppercorns, lentilsSambar masala – used to make Sambar, a thick south Indian lentil soup. Made of cumin, coriander, curry leaves, asafetida, fenugreek, turmeric, mustard, chiles, black peppercorns, lentils

Moist masala pastes:

  • Biryani masala – used to make the delicious dish biryani. Made of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns, salt, garlic, ginger, onion, oil

  • Tandori masala – used with yogurt to marinate meats for grilling in north India. Made of garlic, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, black peppercorns, cardamom

  • Meat masala – used to make any masala curry with meat. Made of garlic, ginger, chile powder, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, oil

  • Vegetable masala – used to make any vegetable masala dish including, pea masala and palak paneer. Made of garlic, ginger, onion, chile powder, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, oil

  • Balchao masala – used to make many different Goan dishes that were influenced by the Portuguese. Made of vinegar which gives the signature flavor, chiles, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, black pepper, cloves

  • Puliogare masala – used to make the delicious south Indian recipe for Tamarind Rice. Made of tamarind paste, curry leaves, coconut, chiles, fenugreek, turmeric, coriander, black peppercorns, peanuts, chickpeas, salt, sugar

Masalas are available in any Indian grocery store as well as any chain grocery in the US. I was stunned to see them in the spice stores in Cochin and Chennai last summer because I had made the assumption that Indian women would not succumb to the use of prepackaged spices. I was wrong! There are so many masalas for everything imaginable like chicken, fish, biryani and vegetables. The list is endless. Many different spice companies produce them. I noticed that the companies in Kerala tended to produce blends that focused more on Malayali (people from Kerala) recipes where as the ones in Chennai specialized in Tamil dishes.

 

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Pineapple has been a favorite fruit of mine for as long as I can remember. I love the sweet tangy juice that drips from the flesh as I bite into large chunks that I cut from the fruit. My family loves it too. In fact, my daughter bought four of them during our recent week long vacation to the island of Maui in Hawaii. Believe me, we ate every bite!

 

 

Young pineapple growing in Maui.

Young pineapple growing in Maui.

 

Hawaii used to be a leader in pineapple production for over two hundred years. In fact, “Hawaii was responsible for 80 percent of the world’s pineapple production” during the 1960s. Today it only accounts for 2 percent.

 

On the other hand, India is one of the world’s top pineapple producers. Pineapples even grow wild across the state of Kerala. They are eaten raw as dessert after a meal or cooked in a side dish that accompanies a meal. Some of the most popular recipes in Kerala include:

 

  • Kichadi (recipe in my cookbook, Kachi’s Kitchen, pineapple and coconut cooked in yogurt and seasoned with mustard seeds)
  • Pachadi (pineapple, coconut and mustard seeds cooked in yogurt)
  • Pineapple rice (pineapple added to plain rice with some spices)
  • Pineapple raita (made fresh with yogurt)
  • Pineapple payasam (cooked as a sweet pudding)

This leads me to the purpose of focusing this post on pineapples. Even though my family ate them every day during our trip and we tasted some pineapple wine at the local winery, Tedeschi Vineyards, Maui’s Winery at Ulupalakua Ranch. This charming winery started growing grapes to make wine back in 1974. While they were waiting for the grapes to grow, they tried making wine from pineapples that grow on this island paradise.
 
 

Tedeschi Vineyard's Hula O'Maui wine.

Tedeschi Vineyard’s Hula O’Maui wine.

 

Tedeschi Vineyards makes three tasty wines from pineapple.Our favorite is an excellent selection to pair with this month’s South Indian recipe of the Month – Spicy Grilled Swordfish. Called Hula O’Maui, it is a crisp, sparkling wine that would be great with a spicy or bold entree. 

 

Their other pineapple wines are Maui Blanc and Maui Splash! would be excellent picks as well. All of them are easy to drink and a delightful change from the every day selections. If these wines are not available in your local store, the vineyard ships to many states.

 

Visit KachisKitchen.com for Indian recipes and cooking tips.

 

Sources:

http://www.to-hawaii.com/agriculture.php

http://mauiwinery.com/

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