Monday, September 24, 2007

Mustard oil and extra virgin olive oil: Two cousins, poles apart

I learned about olive oil as a cooking medium many years ago, during my graduate school days, when I learned to cook pasta. I bought regular (or light) olive oil then, for I couldn’t afford extra virgin (which results from the virgin, or first, press of tree-ripened olives).

I fell in love with extra virgin olive oil later, when I made just enough money as a professional to indulge in it once in a while. I learned to make salad dressings, like vinaigrette.

Until a few years ago, olive oil was little-known in India as a cooking medium. In Calcutta, for instance, people thought olive oil is for body massage.

In my family, olive oil was a novelty when I started cooking with it. For Bengali folks used to the strong aroma and taste of mustard oil, olive oil was something exotic and untried; so, they weren’t sure if they would like it. I introduced them to the oil that is so prized in the Western world and the Mediterranean region.

Later, I thought of a commonality between mustard oil and extra virgin olive oil: both are strong-flavored. So, I experimented to see how big -- or small -- the difference is. I used "kachhi ghani" mustard oil, the most strongly flavored oil (extracted in small mills and sold unbranded), in a Greek salad instead of extra virgin when I made the dressing. The salad had cherry tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, feta cheese (the only affordable brand I could find), lettuce and olives.

After having made the good-looking salad, I tasted it, and, man, was the flavor strong! I had my family taste it, and they all felt the flavor was too strong. Uncooked mustard oil is truly overpowering. Mustard oil is spicy, while extra virgin olive oil is fruity.

In the fight for supremacy, mustard oil comes up tops. It just doesn’t jibe with red wine vinegar, though. Olive oil is olive oil.

Dear reader, do you use extra virgin olive oil? What do you think about other strongly flavored oils, like coconut and sesame oils, used as a cooking medium?

Monday, September 10, 2007

A pancake eggless, but perfect, with a fine flavor

I remember the first pancakes I made, many years ago, when I was in America. I made them with pancake mix available in supermarkets.

They were easy to make: just add eggs, milk, and, maybe, a little water. I ate them with globs of butter heaped on top and maple syrup drizzled on the pyramid.

They were perfect. But, several years later, back home in India, when I tried to make pancakes from scratch – I had never found a pancake mix in a grocery store in Calcutta, where I lived then – the result turned out to be less than palatable. The pancakes smelled of egg. I had used flour, eggs, and milk, no flavoring agent. When offered, my wife ate wrinkling her nose, while my mother refused totally, for she doesn’t eat egg.

Recently, I discovered a pancake recipe for recreating the perfect pancakes of my American life. And, this pancake would be acceptable to all, for these are eggless. To make them distinctive, I added my own twist, substituting a flavor and skipping another.

So, vegetarians, take heart; you can make and eat great pancakes. Just read on.


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cardamom powder
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp water
2 tbsp butter


  1. Mix dry ingredients.
  2. Add milk, oil, and water.
  3. Whisk together until just combined. Do not overmix – let the batter be slightly lumpy.
  4. Let it rest for 15 minutes.
  5. Gently heat butter in a wide pan, and pour two tablespoons of batter into it.
  6. Cook until bubbles appear, and the underside is golden.
  7. Carefully flip over and cook other side.

    Makes 10 pancakes; Serving suggestion: Butter and honey.

(Recipe adapted from

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Doodh bhat: A childhood "dessert" revisited

Recently I ate doodh bhat, something I hadn’t eaten in many years. If I remember correctly, the last time I had eaten I was a young boy.

I ate this time fully knowing what I was doing: I was eating by choice. As a child, I used to eat it when my mother forced me to. We – my siblings and I – ate it as a “dessert” after fussing over lunch or dinner, rejecting everything that was offered or eating with a puckered up face.

Doodh bhat is essentially rice with milk and sugar. At the end of our dinner, my mother would offer it to make sure we had enough nutrition: She thought we needed the protein and minerals.

She would pour on my plate a little bit of the milk along with some of the cream skimmed off the surface. Those days, we had buffalo’s milk. I was growing up in Bhilai, in the middle of India, where buffaloes outnumbered cows. I enjoyed the creamy, cold milk poured over rice, all mixed up nicely with a spoonful of granulated sugar. I remember the crunch of grainy sweetness with the creamy coldness of milk. Sometimes, my mother would put gur, or molasses, instead of sugar. Gur tasted just as well.

So many years later, the doodh bhat of my adulthood was comforting and nostalgic. At the end of a hard day, it calmed my nerves and took me back to those childhood years just for a moment.

Dear reader, do you have any such memory?