It’s the old fashioned “Chekku Ennai”!
The humble ‘chekku ennai’ or cold-pressed oil makes a comeback. Cold-pressing is the traditional method of extracting oil from seeds/fruits. The cold-pressed oil this way is packed with nutrients and health benefits, something which our ancestors enjoyed. We just have to re-invent the wheel — the wooden mill that was used in ancient times. Wood absorbs heat and maintains atmospheric temperature in oil extraction.
Cold-pressing is the traditional method of extracting oil from seeds/fruits. The raw material (sesame/ peanut/ coconut/ sunflower seeds) is typically ground into a paste, and this is pressed with a heavy stone mill, turned by bullocks, until it expels the oil. This first-pressed oil, is sold unrefined, and without any additives.
Cold-pressed oils have all their nutrients intact, retaining the natural properties of the oil-seeds, unlike refined oil. It’s more or less like atta and maida; the source is the same, but atta is unrefined and hence superior to maida, nutritionally. Refining degrades nutritional value, and more significantly, introduces harmful trans fats in an attempt to improve shelf life for commercial reasons.
Refined oils, produced on a large scale (the output for a commercial oil mill runs into tonnes, as opposed to a small chekku, whose daily output can be gathered in a few tins!) and backed by vigorous media campaigns, had almost done away with traditionally extracted oils as old fashioned!
The modern methods of oil extraction involve supplying heat at various stages right from crushing the nuts to the final extraction. To make the oil appear attractive, they remove gums (a thick layer that forms in the oil) and then refine it further with acetic acid, hexane or bleaching soda. To bring down the cost, the manufacturers also mix liquid paraffin made from crude oil.
The low yield of “chekku ennai” is because the oilseeds are not heated to increase the yield, and the oil that is expelled is cold and pure. The oil extracted by large-scale commericial mills comes out warm. But cooking oil isn’t supposed to be pre-heated.
We Indians sadly only woke up to our age-old methods of oil extraction when the olive oil lobby began trumpeting terms such as ‘cold-pressed’ and ‘extra virgin’. Besides, sesame oil is in no way inferior to olive oil. Both are mono-unsaturated oils, and cold-pressed sesame oil has similar health benefits. So there’s no need to substitute imported olive oil in our recipes and compromise on the taste of our tangy vathakuzhambu and idli milagaipodi!
South Indian menus have always incorporated three — groundnut oil (with its high heating point) for frying, coconut oil for dressing, and sesame oil for curries and gravies. All the three have their own benefits.
The unrefined oils have good monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and are unique in taste and colour. These oils are extracted through cold pressing. That means they are not subject to high temperature where their nutrients are altered or destroyed. They are extracted from the nut, seed or fruit without any chemicals or solvents. The nuts and fruit are sun-dried before pressing. This ensures their longevity. They are high in Vitamin E, low in saturated fat and completely free from trans-fats that are unhealthy.
Cold-pressed coconut oil smells delicious. It will smoke if heated too much and is unsuitable for deep frying. But it is perfect for tempering of poriyals and chutneys. It can also be used to drizzle on top of aviyal, coconut rice, olan, kootu or more kuzhambu. Pori and Aval (puffed and pounded rice flakes) when sauted in coconut oil are a favourite tea-time snack. Cold pressed coconut oil is highly beneficial for many ailments as it contains lauric acid. It has tremendous antioxidant properties.
In Tamil sesame oil is referred to as nallennai meaning good oil. If you ask your grandmother, she would have cooked with this “nallennai” It has a very strong taste, so a little goes a long way. It is perfect for everyday cooking. Who doesn’t love to eat idli with podi. It works well with the strong flavours of the podi and is finger-licking good. It is the preferred oil for making pickles like avakkai, etc in the summer season. It’s also high in Vitamins B12 and B6.
Made from sun dried groundnuts, it has received bad publicity as being fattening. It has a high smoke point which makes it ideal for deep frying. Used sparingly, it is a good source of plant sterols. It also contains resveratrol which is an antioxidant. Noodles, stir fries and sauces taste good with the addition of peanut oil.
Salad dressings are great with the addition of olive oil. It blends very well to form thick, creamy emulsions. Spreads, pestos and dips are a great way to add a few tablespoons of this deep green oil to your diet. It enhances the taste of simple foods dramatically. Tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil with a drizzle of this oil is just so perfect.
Instead of mixing oils, try using them individually for different purposes. For example, use groundnut oil to fry foods, ghee on rotis and dosas, extra virgin olive or flaxseed oil in salads, and sesame oil with your idli podi and vatha kuzhambu!
We have lived very well with locally produced foods in the past and will continue to do so in the future too. As long as we remember to use these oils in moderation like they were traditionally used and add a fitness routine to our healthy diet, we’ll be fine.