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The truth about olive oil

Everything that you wanted to know but were afraid to ask about this new medium of cooking taking over middle India

By Anoothi Vishal

In the new, emerging middle India, if there is any category of imported food that has acquired a sheen, a veritable halo in the last two-three years, it is olive oil. The globalization of palates, a younger, eager to  experiment audience, increasing affluence levels, the resulting ‘affluenza”— obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and lifestyle diseases – means that not only is the “miraculous” Mediterranean diet a topic of hot conversations even in tandoori chicken-preferring drawing rooms, but olive oil is now being hailed as some kind of a magic potion.

India, of course, is one of the biggest importers of edible oil. Olive oil constitutes a fraction of this. But the demand for it is shooting up —at 20 per cent per annum. You don’t really need stats to see the spike: At parties, school busstops, on morning walks and more, for Indians of a particular age and income bracket, the conversation invariably turn to diets — and then to claims that households have now shifted to cooking in olive oil entirely. What you eat is a social  statement as much as it is what you are!

But shifting patterns of consumption doesn’t mean that we really understand what we are eating. In fact, if there is one food shrouded in myth and buried under wrong information, it is olive oil—or rather Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), the modern elixir. I was in Italy, under an EU and department of agriculture programme, and had a chance to discuss this with a crosssection of industry and government reps, chefs, consumers and indeed even a food activist or two.

>Myth 1: You can’t fry in EVOO. This is a big misconception. Yes, we know that EVOO is great for salad dressings, as a condiment on bakes, grilled meats, pastas and pizzas, on dips (put some young, grassy oil on hummus to see the magic) but EVOO and Indian food has hardly been a clear subject. Well, you can cook mostly anything in the Indian kitchen in good-quality EVOO, the smoking point of which (the temperature when the oil molecules start to break and result in harmful free radicals) is 220 degrees C—much higher than the ideal frying temperature of 180 degree C. Also, cooking does not destroy the healthy polyphenols in EVOO. Of course, given the high cost, it is for you to decide whether you want to actually fry pooris in it!

> Myth 2: All categories of olive oil are the same. There’s much confusion on this. So, a primer: Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest quality and most flavourful. This is the “juice of olives”,  mechanically pressed without any solvents. Since it is not refined, it is fresh and full of polyphenols. This is also the most consumed oil in countries like Italy and other Med areas. In India, it is quite expensive—almost 10 times what you’d pay for your regular seed oil—and  thus more sparingly picked up.
The second category you’ll sometimes see is “olive oil”. This is refined oil blended with some virgin oils (in any percentage). It has the same initial glyceridic structure but no polyphenols of fresh oil. Then, there’s pomace oil (widely being used in India) made by refining oil extracted from pomace, or the leftover pulp and waste of olives pressed to make virgin oils. Obviously, if you are looking to switch to olive oil for its antioxidants, taste, health benefits and because it is a natural product, it is really EVOO you should use — despite  its price.

>Myth 3: Indian food tastes weird with EVOO. In India, marketing efforts by olive oil companies are slanted towards pitching this as a “healthy” medium. It may certainly be healthier than many things we use but what we often forget is that EVOO is a gourmet product. Like wine, not all EVOO tastes the same. Its flavour (bitter, spicy, fruity) depends on the variety of olives used and their ripeness. In India, we don’t really have monovarietals – oil made from just one variety of olives. You can pick these up when you travel abroad. The EVOO we find in India is blends, usually, with well-rounded and subtler tastes, to suit “Indian palates”.

But Indian cuisine(s) with their diverse flavours, ingredients and cooking styles can benefit from an infusion of EVOO. Traditionally, we have always cooked in oils with distinctive flavours—coconut, groundnut, mustard… and all these impart characteristic aromas and tastes to our regional cuisines. It is also true that Indian cuisine(s) have never been monolithic; there’s been plenty of experimentation and assimilation. So what’s stopping people now from stir-frying crispy slivers of bittergourd or okra in a young, powerful  olive oil? Or making tomato-with-paneer subzi in a fruity one? Or cooking fish in a spicy one? To my mind, these are ideal marriages. After all, if sushi can turn into a wedding staple, why can’t EVOO-enhanced dal? It’s time to experiment!

(The column appeared in the Financial Express on Sunday on Dec 9, 2012)

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