Unofficially, I have always been a bit obsessive about the oil that goes into my food. At my parents’ house, I would nag my mother to make sure no tell-tale glistening was visible. At relatives’ homes, I’ve made myself an irritant, if not a nuisance, rudely saying, “Well, that’s a lot of oil!”, thus ensuring that I either have a healthier meal or don’t get an invitation the next time around.
Now, after being officially told that I cannot have more than three teaspoons of oil for the day, I am far more comfortable with my obsession. If anything, over the last four months, I have become more obsessive. If I am prescribed three teaspoons of oil, I think: Can I get by with two? How about one? If I do that, I could store up my quota for an unhealthy day at the restaurant.
In the event, I have discovered that oil is more a habit than a necessity. As a rule of thumb, I reduce by half the oil that is prescribed in most recipes. Working with that half, I find a fraction of that is usually enough. You need only three things to make an oil-free meal possible:
One, some non-stick pans. Most modern ones will allow you to get away with no oil, but a few drops—or a spray—can offer a welcome medium to fry fish, eggs or even chicken.
Two, use water—or wine. They are magic. When the glistening of oil has been consumed by sizzling vegetables or an onion-tomato base, sauté with water. Alternate with wine. Or stick to just one. Sure, it may not strictly taste like a meal sautéed with oil, but use water or wine judiciously and you will be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Three, slow cooking, or use a pressure cooker or oven. The first two allow you to make inventive one-pot meals, combing varieties of beans, lentils, meat, rice and greens. The oven is manna from heaven for oil-free meats. Simply wrap and seal fish, chicken—or lamb/pork/whatever—in a foil and you will find there is no need for oil.
When I first started out with the three-teaspoon oil restriction in April, I had just reached Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, US, for a fellowship. Starting a kitchen from scratch was a great advantage in setting up my experiments. I essentially had only two pans: The first was enough to cook an egg, a piece of fish or make stir-fries for one. It belonged to an old friend of mine, who lent it for the duration. It was her grandmother’s (if you are reading this, Molly Marsh, thank you for the pan, ladles and much more). The other was a non-stick pot that came with the house. In it I made vegetable curries, pots of Mexican black beans, chickpeas (chhole) and dals (lentils) of many kinds—Boston sells many more varieties than Bangalore.
Back home, I wondered: How would my new low-oil regime fare?
Very well, I am happy to report.
I have even done what I was told could not be done—create a chicken pulao with brown rice and no oil. I reasoned that since brown rice, immensely more nutritious than white rice, takes a long time to cook (about 45 minutes for a mug or two), adding chicken made sense because slow-cooking chicken for that long would make it tender and allow it to soak in the flavour of spices and herbs.
So, for those of you who think mainly vegetables can be adapted for low-oil cooking, be informed that that is not the case. I am also restricted to small quantities of fish or chicken, but I have found that using smaller pieces and mixing them with grain or vegetables (although I am still wary of combining with the latter—why ruin small pleasures?) makes them last longer.
One uncharacteristically muggy Bangalore monsoon day, after—mentally—digesting the culinary lessons from Boston, I set out to put together an entire meal using, yes, just one teaspoon of oil. It was not difficult because by now I had created individual pieces of this jigsaw. I only had to put it together. Here, you will find one completed puzzle. One of the recipes may seem familiar because I have written about it before. Nevertheless, it is useful to post them as part of a complete, balanced meal.
Tell me what you think.
Brown Rice Chicken Pulao
Half kg boneless chicken, chopped into stir-fry-size pieces
2 cups brown rice, washed, soaked for half an hour and drained
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, puréed
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
3 black cardamoms
Half tsp red chilli powder
Half tsp turmeric powder
Half tsp coriander powder
1 sprig rosemary
Salt to taste
Mix the red chilli, turmeric and coriander powders in a little water to make a thin paste. Gently heat the cardamoms and cloves in a non-stick pot, add the tomato purée and sauté for a minute. Add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté until the watery edges of the purée start to evaporate. Add the spices paste and sauté for a minute. Sprinkle a little water if the spices start to stick. Add chopped onion and toss till they soften. Add the chicken and mix well. Add the rice, mix thoroughly with the chicken and spices. Add salt. Add four cups of water or enough to ensure the rice is not exposed. Bring to a boil. Adjust the water if needed. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked. Cooking time may vary depending on the kind of brown rice used. Push rosemary into the rice 15 minutes before taking off the flame.
Jaya’s Modified Four-vegetable Tomato Curry
2 cups chickpea, soak overnight, cook and keep ready
1 zucchini, slit lengthwise and cut into 1-inch chunks
2-3 carrots, chopped into half-inch pieces
Half cabbage, roughly chopped
1 medium red pepper, chopped into 1-inch pieces
3-4 tsp ginger-garlic paste
6 large tomatoes, puréed
5 tsp paprika powder
3 tsp cumin powder
Salt to taste
1 tsp olive oil
2-3 sprigs of marjoram, wash and remove leaves (optional)
Gently heat olive oil in a non-stick pot. When hot, sauté the ginger-garlic paste for 30 seconds. Add 5 tbsp of tomato purée and sauté for a minute. Add spices and stir until the water begins to evaporate. Add carrots and mix well. Cook for 5 minutes, then add zucchini. Toss and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the cabbage, then the rest of the tomato purée, and salt. Add a little water if the purée does not cover the vegetables. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are almost done. Add red pepper for the last 10 minutes. When about to take off heat, mix in the chickpeas and heat through. Sprinkle with marjoram leaves before serving.
Simple Baked Sardines
5 sardines, cleaned and patted dry
2 tsp red chilli powder
Half tsp turmeric
3 tsp tamarind paste
Salt to taste
Smear the sardines with the remaining ingredients. Wrap in a foil and seal the ends. Bake in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for 35 minutes.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide To Creative CookingAnd Other Dubious Adventures.
Also Read | Samar’s previous columns