Showing posts with label cooking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cooking. Show all posts

Feb 29, 2016

Ingredients: Mustard Oil

Mustard growing wild in the neighbors' winter wheat.

Mustard oil is traditionally used in many of the cuisines of South Asia.  It's distinctive pungent flavor is easily recognizable in the spicy pickles called "achaari" that are popular throughout the Indian subcontinent. Mustard oil is also used for deep frying pakoras and as a general cooking oil in many Desi cuisines. 

Bibi's infrequently used bottle of mustard oil.
Mustard oil is produced by grinding the seeds of the black mustard plant (Brassica nigra), the brown mustard plant (Brassica juncea), or the white mustard plant (Brassica hirta). Mustard oil's pungent flavor is due to the presence of allyl isothiocyanate, all plants in the Brassicaceae family such as horseradish, wasabi, cabbage, and turnips share this potent organosulfur compound's flavor. Along with it's sharp, nutty aspects there's really no way to describe the flavor of raw mustard oil without comparing it to the nose watering and rather caustic notes of wasabi and horseradish.

Brassica hirta or white mustard
The very same mustard that blooms throughout my native California in February  & March
Mustard oil has high levels of alpha-linolenic and erucic acids. While alpha-linoleic acid is one of the two essential fatty acids necessary for health, erucic acid is toxic in high doses. Studies done on rats in the 1970's demonstrated the cardiotoxic effects and perhaps some carcenogenic potential with high erucic acid intake. However, it has since been found that rats digest vegetable oils differently than humans. There have never been any documented reports of harm to humans due to high erucic acid via dietary intake. Mustard oil is not allowed to be imported or sold in the United States for use in cooking due to it's high erucic acid content.

Mustard seeds being ground for oil in India.
In order to reduce mustard oil's pungent flavor many cultures of South Asia heat the oil to smoking point in large quantities to "crack" it. I've seen this done in my Kashmiri relatives' homes. Not only does it terrify me to have a huge pot of smoking oil over a gas flame, the smoke produced is highly irritating to the eyes and airways. When I wish to reduce the pungent flavor of mustard oil I just dilute it with ghee or some other cooking oil. For pickles or achaari the pungent flavor of mustard oil is essential so there's no need to crack it. The use of mustard oil has significantly decreased in South Asia as other vegetable oils have become cheaper and more widely available.

Feb 1, 2016

Ingredients: Let's All Reek With Fenugreek!

Fenugreek, methi or, samudra methi is an annual herb which is commonly featured in dishes of the Indian Subcontinent.  It is a member of the plant family Fabaceae, and of the genus and species Trigonella foenum-graecum. It's seeds are used as a spice while the plant is used in fresh and dried form as an herb.

Fenugreek or methi seeds
Fenugreek/methi can be used as a spice in the form of it's seeds. The square shaped yellow seeds can be utilized whole or powdered in pickles/achaari, dals, sambar, vegetable dishes, curries, and the traditional spice mixes of the various cuisines of South Asia. Dry roasting or fryingthe seeds mellows their pungent flavor a bit, but scorching them results in a strong, bitter flavor. Use them sparingly, for they are quite powerful in flavor.

The leaves of fenugreek look a bit like pea or vetch leaves.
Understandable, as fenugreek is also in the Fabaceae family.
Fenugreek/methi can be used in fresh or dried form as an herb. Fresh fenugreek/methi leaves are commonly sold at markets across the Subcontinent in bundles with the roots still attached. They feature in many curries and flatbreads also. The fresh leaves are much milder in flavor than the seeds. You'll often see fenugreek/methi growing wild in clumps near water where the soil is sandy across South Asia. The leaves are very rich in calcium and also make excellent cattle fodder. The sprouted seeds of fenugreek/methi can also be used in salads.
Dried fenugreek leaves are called kasoori methi.
The dried leaves of fenugreek are called kasoori methi in Hindi and are used in curries also. The dried leaves much stronger and pungent in flavor than the fresh leaves and can quickly overpower a dish if not used judiciously.

One of the many brands of dried fenugreek leaves available in India.

The flavor and scent of fenugreek/methi in all it's forms is very unique and unusual.
 It's flavor has been described as being a combination of celery, fennel, and maple syrup. It also has a very earthy and rather rank musty, fusty note.
Sotolon, 3-Hydroxy-4,5-dimethylfuran-2(5H)-one
(Also called caramel furanone, sugar lactone, fenugreek lactone)


Sotolon is the powerful aroma compound responsible for fenugreek/methi's distinctive fragrance and flavor. Sotolon is also the major aroma and flavor component of artificial maple syrup, the herb lovage, molasses, aged rum, aged sake, white wine, flor sherry, and toasted tobacco. High concentrations of sotolon result in the musty taste present in curries and pickles/achaari. At lower concentrations the flavor and scent of fenugreek/methi presents as a pleasant caramel or maple syrup note. Sotolon passes through the human body unchanged and is excreted in sweat and urine. Anyone consuming quite a bit of fenugreek/methi will thus reek of sotolon. I've often wondered if sotolon is the "curry smell" that many non Desi persons find objectionable. I've also wondered if sotolon is the "mysterious" note of "honey and decay" in Guerlain's famed perfume Djedi.  It would certainly be mysterious and unfamiliar to most Western palates. At any rate, go easy on the fenugreek/methi in all it's forms when cooking for Westerners whom are new to Desi cuisines.

Guerlain's Djedi

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