Flavourful Fats

Caprese salad is the Italian flag on a plate.  Simply combine white mozzarella and red tomato on the plate.  Season, then dress with a good extra virgin olive oil.  Garnish with fresh green basil to create a dish that sings summer.

How do different oils and fats influence the flavour in different cuisines?  I set myself the task of finding out a little about some of the different cooking oils I have encountered in the Whau.

This article isn’t about health.  It is about food, taste and culture.  A nutritionist can better explain the science when it comes to types of fat, but I was surprised to find they all have the same number of calories. 

My Pakeha grandmothers used solid fats like lard and butter.  My Mother used to have a big jar of fat by the stove. It was reused over and over, before we learned that reheating fat multiple times was not good for us.  We have largely moved away from lard in favour of vegetable oils, but butter is found in nearly every Kiwi household, and it is hard to beat in baking.

Why was olive oil one of the first things to disappear off the shelf in the Italian lock down? Firstly, taste anything you are going to pour all over your food. I understand it isn’t a wine, but why grow and buy lovely fresh food, then douse it with any old bottle of oil we can get our hands on?

Buy olive oil that suits your palette, or even better your purpose. Some folk like a strong taste, some like a mild flavour.   Italians can have four or five bottles, a delicate bottle for salad or fish, a stronger flavour to match the char of barbequed food.

Some Italians buy olive oil simply by smell.  I am not that advanced, but I have learned that it is a condiment, like salt or pepper.  It will change the flavour of your food. 

Try thinking like a Mediterranean, use simple fresh food enhanced by simple fresh condiments.  Buy olive oil as fresh as you can get it, a great reason to go with a Kiwi oil if you can source a good one. Waiheke has one of the top olive oils in the world.  It is also true however, that the producers from Europe have centuries of experience.

Make sure your oil has a use by on it, and don’t let it hang around, it does not get better with age.  Ideally you want an oil with a short time between picking and pressing too. Buy it in a dark bottle or tin, and put it in a dark cupboard.  The lights in a super market, your house, and the sun, all degrade it.  Extra virgin is the premium, it comes off with the first press, and has to meet some strict criteria.  (Many companies now centrifuge rather than pressing)

The French use lard, duck or goose fat, and butter. Good French cuisine, savoury or sweet, is amazing.  They frown at the Kiwi idea of cutting out fat, lose the fat and lose the flavour.  The ethos is to eat a considered amount of the best tasting food you can cook.  Interestingly French butter is a different shade to New Zealand butter.  Tradition plays a huge part in attitudes to food in France, they will tell you that generations have perfected their recipes, criticise or alter them at your peril.

Jewish culture was governed by strict dietary laws, given to Moses from God.  These Kashrut rules produce Kosher food.  In modern times these have been relaxed for many.  Strictly speaking dairy and meat cannot be mixed for observant Jews, so chicken fat sometimes replaces butter.  Hanukah celebrates the miracle of the holy oil.  Fried food is eaten symbolically for eight days, the same number of days the holy oil lasted in the miracle.  (It should have run out in one day)

 Many Pacific Islanders use peanut oil to cook dishes like Island chop suey, it doesn’t taste right with anything else.  I have a wonderful memory of a Cook Island “Aunty” turning up to my 21st with a hundred Island doughnuts, deep fried.  I have asked around as to which oil is used for these treats, it varies from canola or peanut, to lard.  A high smoke point is essential for deep frying, that is the point that the oil goes hazy and starts to smoke, not far off the point of catching fire.

When it comes to deep frying, Japanese have mastered light and fresh morsels cooked in vegetable oil.  Historically they learned to batter and deep fry from the Portuguese, but have really made it their own.  Few Japanese homes have a large oven.  Some meals are cooked on the table as you eat.  This is a hangover from a time when eating meat was prohibited due to Buddhism.  Farmers cooked meat in secret, on spades and shovels in the field.

Indian cooking uses dalda (hydrogenated fat), coconut oil and ghee.  Ghee is butter less the dairy solids, it doesn’t burn like regular butter.  Their use of spice in combination with these fats brings layers of aromatic flavour, heat and medicinal qualities.  Their skill in preparing vegetarian food is spectacular, and deep frying is common.

Chinese cooking mainly uses rendered pork lard, and vegetable oils.  Sesame oil gives a stir fry or a salad an instant oriental flavour.  Chinese utilize everything edible, and strive for balance.  Chilli oils are used.  It is a country with diverse cuisine, every region has its speciality.

Any oil can be cold pressed, or alternatively heat and chemicals can be used for extraction.  The technique influences the taste and food value significantly.  Cold pressed oils are often more expensive and therefore used for dips and dressings, where the flavour won’t be altered by heat.  Hazelnut, macadamia and walnut oils are pretty fancy, but add beautiful flavours to salad.

I have not covered all the cuisines you will encounter in the Whau, just a few I have personal knowledge of.  We would love to hear from you if you have more to share.

In summation, I say buy the best oils you can afford.  If you have a chance to ask a chef or seller a few questions, do it.  They will be delighted in your interest.  Never forget oil is a flavour, a good one is a game changer for your cooking.

by Jann-Marie Ross

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