The beautiful thing about cooking oil is, it doesn’t have to taste of anything. And that’s fine! It’s a blank canvas, and all of your flavourful marinades, tarkas, stir fries, salad dressings, roasts and braises are the paint. Cooking Asian & Middle Eastern food, all you really need is a neutral oil and then all the other ingredients will help to ensure that your dishes sing with flavour.
What's a neutral oil?
Neutral oils are great for all-purpose cooking. They’ll usually be clear to amber in colour, with a very high smoke point. That means you can brown your ingredients on a higher heat before the oil starts to smoke and break down. They won’t affect the taste or aroma of your dishes all that much. Vegetable oil (also known as rapeseed or canola) is the most easily available option, with sunflower a close second. But groundnut (peanut) oil is popular for Chinese stir-fries, and soybean or rice bran oil, while much more rare in the UK, are also authentic alternatives. Untoasted sesame oil (‘gingelly oil’) is often used in India as it’s thought to help cool down hot and spicy dishes.
What about flavourful oils?
The more you cook, the more you might start wanting to explore different options and experiment with our recipes. When a special type of oil is necessary to a recipe, you’ll find it in your box. But just like using a special type of pan or kitchen gadget, using a special kind of oil can help broaden your kitchen horizons even when it isn’t strictly necessary.Flavourful oils are generally unrefined— that means that they were pressed from their source ingredients through mechanical means, without any heat treatments or added chemicals. Even supposedly neutral oils like rapeseed, ‘cold-pressed’ using traditional methods, can have surprisingly flavourful results.
The king of flavourful oils, a good bottle of Extra Virgin (the top grade of unrefined olive oil) will make your Middle Eastern dishes sing. It ranges in colour from gold to bright green, but as with wine, you can’t tell quality by sight— try a few different varieties and get to know the flavours and aromas until you discover one you really like. Extra Virgin loses some of its flavour when heated, but unless you deep fry, you’ll still be able to taste the difference in the finished dish.
TOASTED SESAME OIL
A premium ingredient with a deep brown hue, prepared to perfection in China, Korea and Japan. You can cook with it, but its nutty, roasty aroma is best when added towards the end of cooking, or drizzled as a salad dressing. The flavour can be intense, so use sparingly! Don’t confuse it with the more amber-coloured, untoasted sesame oil.
A neutral oil is a great base for aromatic ingredients, as it will absorb all the flavourful fat-soluble compounds and preserve them. You can prepare a big batch of oil by heating ingredients (don’t burn them!) like dried chilli, ginger, garlic, Sichuan pepper, dried shrimp and spices, together or separately. Then let the oil cool, bottle it, wait a day for the flavours to develop, and enjoy the results for years to come.
Coconut oil’s distinctively rich flavour is beloved of South Indian and Thai cooks especially. But while South Indian cooking uses the pure stuff, Thai cooks have a different trick that you can try at home— skim the creamy solids off the top of a coconut milk can, heat on high, and wait till the oil ‘splits’ from the solids. You can then fry your curry paste in the clear oil, and then pour in the rest of the coconut milk as usual! The curry might not end up looking as creamy as you’re used to— but that’s the authentic Thai way.
Some More unusual options...
Traditionally pressed walnut, pistachio and almond oils are usually confined to health food shops in this country, but Middle Eastern cooks have been using them for centuries. They’re delightfully flavoursome when used cold in dressings and dips, or for pastries and baked goods. They’re also expensive, so drizzle carefully!
Native to China, camellia oleifera is related to the tea leaf plant, but instead it’s harvested for a fragrant, slightly sweet cooking oil sometimes admiringly dubbed ‘the olive oil of China’. These days it’s extremely rare even in its native country, so if you’re ever lucky enough to get your hands on some, cherish it. Just make sure it’s the edible oil, not the essential oil used in perfumes.
This one’s controversial. It’s the most popular cooking oil in Bengali (Eastern Indian and Bangladeshi) cuisine, a pungent, gently spicy base for frying ingredients to crispy perfection, as well as for pickles & preserves called ‘achar’. In this country, however, EU regulations forbid its sale as an edible product, due to [unproven] health concerns dating back to the 1970s. So use it at your own risk… but for a simpler alternative, you can always substitute with a neutral oil infused with mustard seeds.
This stuff’s bad for the environment, and even worse for you if you eat it! Avoid at all costs...
Did we miss out your favourite kind of cooking oil? Or do you have especially strong feelings about vegetable vs groundnut oil? Let us know in the comments!