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Cooking oil or Hair oil? A story by a random traveller to India

On one of the many times I drove down the lovely hills of the North east, I took a break around the Darjeeling area. On the side of the road, a tiny little tea stall called out to me. The tea served would probably be picked freshly from the farms below, and hot dim sums with spicy homemade pickles were just the thing to suit my palate.

Something quirky about this chai of India, it turns us all into philosophers. As I sat down on the make shift stools, I noticed a common Indian image- a mother oiling her daughter’s lovely black tresses. She gently took a small palmful of oil and dripped it on to her daughter’s humble head with a touch only a mother could have. She then massaged it, moving her fingers in small circular motions. Then she repeated the whole cycle. Thinking I could get some good earthy knowledge from her, I asked what oil she was using. She held up her hand to my nose for me to smell the oil. A sharp, familiar, slightly pungent smell tingled my senses. Yep, it was mustard. I thanked her and walked back to the car to resume my wandering. My gastronomic issues were quite thankful to this whiff for the rest of the journey.

Interestingly enough, a few friends from the Northeast were talking about how it was strange that South Indians cook in coconut oil. “How can you cook in hair oil!” was what had them so appalled. And me being the person I am, I added fuel to the fire by contributing my North Eastern trivia. By the time we were done with the soft canapes in our hand, they were no longer soft. But we all agreed that indigenous oils of each region in India play a unique role in hair care and cooking. In most of North India, including Punjab, Bengal and the entire North Eastern strip, most people use mustard oil in cooking as well as to massage their scalps. On the other hand, Goans, Keralites and many coastal regions use coconut oil for the same. If you go to Central India, you’ll find its peanut oil that tickles their fancy. And while at an Italian spa, don’t be surprised if they have an olive oil massage pack.

Jhal Muri

Mustard oil, if anything, is an acquired taste. I graduated to the acquaintance stage when I was on a train journey to the capital of Bengal, Kolkata. It was so delicious that I had to order it at least 5 times to get all the ingredients right.

I did get it right in the end though:

Sev: 4 tbsp

Khara mixture with dal: 4 tbsp

Freshly chopped onions: 4 tbsp

Chopped Green Chillies: 1½ tbsp

Red Chilli Powder: 1 tbsp

Salt: To taste

Chopped green coriander: 3 tbsp

Sprouted Chana: 4 tbsp

Boiled sliced potato: 5 tbsp

Mango pickle oil: 1 tbsp

Puffed rice crisps (muri): 100 gms

Best quality mustard oil: 3 tbsp

Lime wedges: 4

Coconut slivers: 10

Jhalmuri - A famous West Bengal Snacks

Jhalmuri – A famous West Bengal Snacks


In order for this recipe to turn out as good as I have made it sound, make sure the muri is fresh and crisp. You can try crisp it by gently warming it in a kadhai or a very low heated oven, only around 50 C. The vendor in the train had used a cylindrical tin to mix the ingredients in so I’d suggest you use something similar.

Add the ingredients in the tin exactly in the order as listed above till the potatoes. Make sure you shake it vigorously after each addition. Top it off with some pickle oil, puffed rice, some mustard oil a squeeze of fresh lime. Serve in paper cones with slivers of fresh coconut to give it that special vendor feel.

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