Thursday, February 18, 2010

The oil conundrum and a pulikulambu (tamarind relish with brinjals and ginger) for ven pongal grandma style

Every country we know of has an oil problem either too much of it or too little of it. Wars have been fought over it, uneasy partnerships have been forged, governments have been brought down but with nary an easy solution is in sight. Every conceivable form of sustenance as we know it would grind to a halt without this unending supply of oil.

Let's replace countries with kitchens and oil with cooking oil and the problems would still be the same. Too many options but none the perfect choice. Mountains have to be moved, perceptions had to swallowed to get on with life.

I am beginning to think that living life like an ostrich maybe a good thing else a conundrum of some kind is sure to visit you, it seems pretty frequently these days especially if it relates to food. The more you know learn about food and how it is sourced the more you want to avoid very many of them, some ubiquitous that it proves to be all the more difficult.

I started reading about GMO and I knew almost immediately I had to make some pretty big changes. The three most common GMO crops are soybean, corn and canola. Soybean and corn seem almost impossible to avoid if you buy processed foods of any kind. Even seemingly health foods(?!) like breakfast cereals have them in large doses. If you follow 'Pollan's grandma shopping rule' you just might be able to avoid them. The one other GMO matter that my kitchen had in abundant quantities in unadulterated pure form was the Canola oil. I am still struggling to get rid of it completely because the alternatives don't seem like perfect solutions.

When I first came here I hadn't cooked a proper meal by myself once. I had some general ideas having watched food being cooked and some tried and trusted cook books. I also knew one of the first things I needed to have was cooking oil. With an array of shiny bottles available to be picked up ranging from corn,vegetable, canola to olive oil I picked one not for its calorific or fat content but by which one had the most pleasing yellowish sheen. The choice mostly worked well, if you want to know it was vegetable oil that I first picked I think.

Then came the canola craze in the 90s which the purported claim that it was the best oil in the market, I switched to it and have never looked back until now having been hit with an insurmountable road block..

I had this unnecessary perception that cooking Indian food with olive oil was somehow violating the sacrosanct tenents of the ancient cooking methods. When a few of my friends tried to impress upon me the benefits of olive oil I simply failed to listen to them. I wish I hadn't been an ass and listened to them. PJ, reminded me of why I was reluctant, like she mentioned problems with heating the oil to a high temperature. Wiki Smoke Point. I have used olive oils to cook pasta sauces, stir fries etc and they taste just fine. So here I am in this late date trying to decide which oils to cook with.

By the way if you haven't head over to this excellent comprehensive post on Jugalbandi about oils and you would save yourselves a ton of time.

I have eliminated corn oil and vegetable oil, the other readily available supermarket alternatives and you know why. I am left with using sesame oil (nallennai), olive oil or peanut oil. I am leaning more towards olive oil more for convenience than anything else. The organic and all other forms are readily available in almost all grocery stores. I will be using peanut oil for deep frying because that is what my grandmother uses. Don't ask me why I forgot this in the first place. Sra's comment is a good reminder to use a variety of oils than stick to any particular one. No more bulk oil buying for me which means Costco is out.

I was smart to keep away from the "you won't know it is not butter" stuff because love of ghee is in my gene. We had containers of freshly made ghee sent by my grandmother and the taste is something that you never forget. But it is not feasible to cook everything in ghee, so ghee will continue to be used in the same quantities it has always been that is in dishes that it is meant to be.

Sadly I never developed a taste for coconut oil and it is hard to miss the smell of foods cooked in coconut oil so for now I won't be cooking with coconut oil.

From what I read sunflower oil is good to use as well. Atleast it is made from sunflower seeds which cannot be said of canola (canada oil?).

I do not use more than a couple of tsps of oil in cooking anyway. Just enough to season with mustard and cumin, so any oil used should not be a big deal right?

It is very easy to be carried by the recent fads and health claims. The health claims proportionally increases with the acreage of the same under cultivation. soy bean for example. Moreover the old world foods and for that matter oil and fats that do not have the muscle of the food industry behind it gets the short shrift.

Now that I have a plan for dealing with my cooking oil conundrum we shall move on to tasty matters like this brinjal pulikulambu for instance. This particular pulikulambu is made specially as a side for ven pongal. There are many a time I have tolerated ven pongal just for this reason. One important ingredient is to have small onions or shallots while making this. I wouldn't use big onions for this but if that is all you have no worries. A good amount of ginger is what makes this pulikulambu special so don't leave it out. Mine turned out a bit on the thicker side but it is best when the kulambu is runny so adjust water accordingly.

Brinjal pulikulambu
1. 6-8 brinjals chopped into small pieces and drop them in water
2. 4 medium sized shallots or a handful of small onions chopped
3. 2 inch size knob of ginger minced or grated
4. 3 garlic cloves chopped
5. 5 -6 green chilies chopped
[all of the above should be chopped to more or less the same size with the exception of ginger which can be grated if you don't like biting into them]
6. tamarind pulp for a small lemon sized ball [about 2 cups liquid]
7. 2 tsp sambhar powder or chili powder
8. 1/2 - 1 tbsp jaggery or unprocessed cane sugar (karumbu sarkarai]
9. salt to taste
10. seasonings - mustard seeds, curry leaves
11. 1 tsp oil

To powder
1. 1 tsp rice
2. few methi seeds
3. tiny piece of asfoetida
roast the above and make a powder

1. In a pan heat oil and add the mustard seeds and when they pop add the curry leaves followed by the onions, saute till they start to turn color.
2. Add the garlic, green chilies and ginger and saute for a minute or two
3. Add the chopped brinjals and saute for a few more minutes. Add the sambhar powder and give a good mix.
4. Pour in the tamarind pulp [extracted to 2 cups] and 1 cup of water, salt and let it cook for 10-12 minutes till the brinjals are soft.
5. Add the roasted powder and the jaggery, let boil for a minute more.

This is best paired with Ven Pongal.

Updated: Sra's and PJ's comments


  1. I always used Canola oil, still do for everything and add ghee in the end to flavor the dishes.
    Extra Virgin olive oil is only taste good for dipping the bread, I used for cooking once (regular Olive oil), couldn't stand the smell,tried the veg oil, same problem.
    My mom always used Peanut oil, but I don't use it here. NEVER liked Margarine or any "replacement oil or butter", rather use the real oil and butter.

    I got few Eggplants from Indian grocery store last weekend, had fun cooking 4 different dishes, will post next week.

    Pulikulambu looks delicious, thanks for posting ajji's recipe. too late for me to try, Eggplants are gone but bookmarked it for next time!:))

    Bought A&E Documentary DVD of real Amelia Earhart, so different from the romanticized movie with Richard Gere and Hilary Swank!

  2. I have been using olive oil for over a decade now. I use canola oil for deep frying.

  3. I use olive oil for sambhar and vathakozhambus ISG, no difference in taste. But Nallenai is the best I guess, what a correct name?

    pulikuzhambu looks yummy, with pongal, it reminds me of pongal kothsu days.. I made one with brinjals today gutti vanakaya :)

  4. Thanks for bringing this up again, ISG. we have now stopped Canola oil, olive oil is way too pricey. Each time we go to Costco/SAMS the price of the olive oil increases. we are now using vegetable oil and plan to use groundnut oil.

    The tamarind relish is new to me. Looks good.

  5. I just love reading your posts.. there is an oil conundrum indeed and I agree that more the info, more the confusion. I started using olive oil pretty much for everything around two years ago. Then read some scary things about heating olive oil to a high temperature (for tempering in Indian cooking) and some negative side-effects of that which I then read was mildly carcinogenic.. which surely scared me off it a lot (later I read some contrasting reports too). Now, I use good quality olive oil for raw oils (salads, soups, dipping oil, pastas) and canola for Indian cooking.

    Delicious brinjal dish, it sure is a very authentic recipe.

  6. All time peanut oil. Sometimes gingelly oil especially for pulikuzhambu. And if provided I can cook all food with ghee ;) Is peanut oil no that common in US ? Or too expensive ? This pulikuzhambu I bet is the best combo. I used to make a Chidambaram style kothsu which is similar to this but instead of chillies would roast and grind coriander, red chillies and chana dal. That takes up the kulambu to a different plan of taste. And as u mentioned jaggery here, I can never skip it.

  7. I have an Uncle who uses olive oil for cooking ever since he had a bypass. I've experimented with it for Indian food and it hasn't always made a difference, yet to try it with everyday food, though! At home we use gingelly for everything but here what I do is use different oils with different things. Gingelly for chutneys - always. Then for variety, I rotate them - One pack of gingelly, then peanut, then rice bran, then sunflower, then safflower. I also always have a supply of EVOO and mustard oil, the EVOO I use with eggs, just to make sure I get some into me. I don't mind coconut oil but don't make stuff that goes with it much so that's only rarely found in my place.

    The papers here today have news about how soybean oil is now under the scanner following BT Brinjal's exit - apparently India's exporting it as its own soybean crop us low, and the debate is whether the GM-ness gets carried into the oil or not.

  8. I can definitely say that i cant live without olive oil nowadays, pulikuzhambu looks thick and yum,prefect side dish for ven pongal..

  9. Though I always cook healthy with as less oil as possible but took cooking oil seriously only when my very fit father has a sudden attack and the doctor blamed the oil. we now use Saffola sunflower oil and both I and Hubby are not fond of ghee or butter and we seldom use it mainly to enhance the flavor. like you I also had this thought that olive oil are no good for our indian style of cooking but when I tried it to my utter disbelief I loved the aroma. I have seen if you heat the oil properly before putting anything all the smell are gone. so now olive oil is also a part of my pantry. thats a big pinch to the pocket but well health is our main concern.
    my small kitchen garden is giving me a steady production of brinjals...this dish is something will make next. between love that black bowl of yours

  10. Asha, I am tilting towards using peanut oil. I used to see the planters peanut oil bottles before but now I don't see them anymore.

    Usha, glad to hear that.

    Sowjanya, I have slowly come to realize that. I am going to mix and use all kinds of oils which is what is recommended.

    RC, whatever works right? I am on a trial period now with all the oils.

    PJ, you reminded me of one of the reasons for not using olive oil, yes the carcinogenic effects of heating them to a high temp. But most Italian cooks use a lot of olive but you are right for tempering it might be not be a good idea.

    Nirmala, peanut oil used to be found in most stores but now I don't see them that much. I am debating between olive oil and peanut oil in cooking but alternating several might be the best.

    Sra, my aunt has started using olive oil after my uncles by pass as well and she is an excellent cook. That is what has given me the incentive to give olive oil a chance. I think your method is the best, just like including all colors of vegetables and fruits in the diet, it is a very good idea to use all kinds of oils in cooking and I am going to be doing that from now on.

  11. I use Canola Oil for sweets but otherwise use Olive Oil.I mean I have tried frying sweets in Olive oil and it tastes terrible..atleast for me!PuliKulambu, although a new dish tome, is so delicious, Indo!

  12. I got worried about the Oil after your and Jugalbandi's post.
    I am still using Canola and Olive Oil. I do use Olive Oil for a lot of my Indian cooking, those that don't involve too much frying and "bhuno"ing and am happy with the taste.
    Sunflower or Peanut should be a good option. My Mom and grandma used to use Peanut Oil, the brand "Postman" for a long time and later my Mom switched to "Saffola", the sunflower oil.

    I will look out for Sunflower oil here. Which brand did you get ?

  13. Shri, no I would never use olive oil for deep frying. Regular cooking I am not that concerned because usually 2-3 tsp is the on the upper limit for me.

    Sandeepa, I am still looking haven't found sunflower oil yet. I am surprised that the peanuts oils have disappeared, they used to be readily available before.

  14. I've been using pomace olive oil past 12-13's ok for everyday cooking...It is very expensive but it's worth every penny...Dish looks delicious and tasty..;))

  15. When we were in India, my mom used only peanut oil and nallenai. Now I am seriously thinking to change from using canola to peanut oil. I use nallenai for vatha kuzhmabu and idli podi.

    Pulikulambu looks delicious. I make it the same way except we call it kothsu.

  16. I've been using many different oils since I have started cooking :D For authentic Kerala dishes I still use coconut oil, though
    I love love brinjal pulikulambu...Will try your version next time..Have a windeful week end !

  17. well it scares me to think that I have been using canola oil in the past, during my US years.Now I have switched to Olive, gingelly and sunflower oil used alternatively.Now after reading the carcinogenic effects of oilve oil ??Iam confused.could you kindly elaborate on that if possible.

  18. Vegetable oil, Gingelly & olive oil are the three we use at home. Gingelly comes out on days of pulzhikachal and for milagai podi. Olive oil for Mediterranean cooking and vegetable oil for everything else. I have never had this I have to try it now

  19. Thanks Indo. My first win..I used to wonder always why all the random probabilities were running away from me...Finally when I least expected it..

    Nalla kalai vara porenga nnu nenaichen..C and H pathuttu..Ippidi kavuthuteengale :)

  20. I use Olive oil, the regular one for daily cooking.. canola for deep frying stuffs. & EVOO for salads, & you the kind which does not need too much cooking. Love the asian sesame oil too, but it is too expensive. I have never used peanut oil. don;t know if I will like it and do not like coconut oil in cooking.

    nice recipe.

  21. Your post on oil is very useful.I use gingerly oil and rice bran oil.
    Kulambu looks yummy!

  22. This reminds me of baingan bharta. When I was a kid thats the only way I'd have an eggplant !

  23. I try to use diff oils based on the dish but you are right the more I read abt all this the more confusing it gets. :(
    I've not tried this combination of pongal and pulikuzhambu sounds delish

  24. i had this same dilemna some time back and stopped buying canola oil. still don't know if we are eating right..but i use coconut oil and olive oil.. there is a lighter olive oil which is better for frying and that gets used for all cooking and the EVOO is only as topping or for pasta dishes. For deep frying its vegetable oil for now. i have to try peanut oil.

  25. Sumi, I don't think there is anything to be scared about, atleast no studies can conclusively proven anything. Canola is a GM product and if you have problems with it you should keep away from it. As for Olive oil and carcinogenic properties - certain types of olive oil when heated to smoking can be carcinogenic, but studies have not be conclusive. I think extra light olive oil has a higher smoke point. So make sure you are using the right kind and more importantly please do your research whatever the oil type you choose to use.

  26. Im south coconut oil it is for most dishes..but the rest of my cooking is in Olive oil...though I try to use a minimum of oil in any case!

  27. Indo, try baking with coconut oil. You don't smell it at all. Peanuts are way too gmo as well. :(

    We generously use EVOO, nallennai, coconut oil and ghee (DD and DH these days!). I haven't read anything bad about sunflower oil 'yet' so that's what we use for frying which we do very rarely. It is much readily available at every grocery store here.

    I use evoo for everyday Indian cooking. I don't use mustard in these dishes because that requires heating the oil to a higher temp. I instead use jeera instead. It doesn't smell olive-oily at all. Nallennai adds something to the smell of sambar, which is missing when we use olive oil.

  28. Kay, that thought about peanuts did cross my mind. I want to shift away from Canola , at least know what peanuts are.

    I use extra light olive oil, peanut oil and sesame oil. Next month I am going to introduce safflower oil to the mix. I did not find sunflower oil in the stores here.

  29. I have heard of brinjal gothsu being served with pongal - but this sounds even better! I love puli kozhambu.

    I have recently bought rice bran oil (after using sunflower oil for the last 12 years) to see how it goes - my Dad swears it keeps his cholestrol in check...

  30. Me too canola oil, love the tangy dish, absolutely yummmilious.

  31. All 3 ISG, OJ, Banana and vegetable OIl.

  32. I used to use EVOO for everything until I read about the cons of heating it, so now I use EVOO for salads and such. For regular cooking it is a combination of sesame oil/ canola oil. Since I do not use much oil and rarely fry foods etc, I feel a little more comfortable with this combination.
    The brinjal kuzhambu looks really yum, I am sure it tastes delicious with ven pongal !

  33. Just remembered - My ND says grapeseed oil is good. chk it out.

    Also, check out or you local unfi chapter or even amazon to get good quality oils and grains at cheaper price. I miss the online shopping experience that US offered. :(

  34. I know you mentioned films....but I can't find that part. "Fresh" by Ana Sofia Joanes And "Collapse" by Chris Smith..

  35. Jennifer, thanks for letting me know. I just watched the trailer of Fresh and want to get hold of the DVD.

    It is now permanently on the tab under 'Books & More'. I had them listed on another blog post- Baby Button Mushrooms with Cauliflower and Green Peas stir fry.


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