The mustard oil is a strong-smelling oil which is extracted from tiny mustard seeds. A single mustard seed is comprised of about 50% in oil, part vegetable oil and part essential oil. Its scent is extremely pungent and somewhat resembles that of the scent of wasabi.
Obtained by grinding or pressing the mustard seeds, mustard oil has been used in Indian cuisine for years. You will most commonly find it used in fish curries and other traditional Bengali foods. It is also used as a massage oil and is an important part of the culture of northern India. It is used traditionally as a lamp oil in Punjabi weddings and during the festival of Diwali.
The various parts of the mustard plant are used to make all sorts of cuisines. Most Americans will be familiar with the condiment mustard, which is derived from grinding the mustard seeds and mixing them with vinegar and other ingredients. The leaves of the plant are also edible, known commonly as mustard greens.
Mustard Oil in Indian Cooking
Although its use has decreased since the introduction of cheaper alternatives such as blended vegetable and canola oil, mustard oil remains as a cooking oil in India. It has a strong, almost pungent scent that has qualities very similar to horseradish. The chemicals that cause this strong taste can also ironically benefit you by clearing up nasal congestion or phlegm. Its taste is similar to horseradish, wasabi or spicy mustard cream.
In most Indian cooking, the oil is used for sautéing. As it reaches its smoke point, this is one of the few oils that actually improve in taste. Much of the pungent flavor of the oil is lost and replaced by a sweeter yet spicy at the smoking point, giving the food a marvelous taste.
Mustard Oil in the United States
Mustard oil contains a high level of erucic acid, much higher than that of consumer-grade canola oil. Erucic acid is a highly toxic substance that is believed to be able to cause serious damage to humans when taken in internally.
Because of early research linking high levels of erucic acids to bad health, culinary mustard oil is actually banned in the United States, Canada and most of Europe. The actual effects that mustard oil has on humans, however, are actually controversial and are open for interpretation. There is no concrete data that suggests that mustard oil has any negative effect on humans so far.
Unfortunately, the mustard oil sold in the US is not suitable for consumption and is for external use only. It is usually sold as a massage oil.
Although banned in major countries, the smooth spiciness and unique flavor of the mustard oil is valued in other countries where its culinary uses are not banned or restricted.