Mustard oil is an integral part of Bengali cuisine. My memories of childhood have the strong smell of mustard oil weaved within them. If you have not had the experience of being in a home where dry red chili is added to smoking hot mustard oil it will be hard for you to imagine the effect. The sharpness and jhaanj (do not know the English word for it, just imagine extreme pungent and sharp smell) of this deadly combination will clear your sinuses, will make your eyes water and will certainly make you sneeze. But you want to know what is food heaven? It is a drizzle of mustard oil on Hilsa fish cooked in mustard gravy (bhapa ilish) or mashed potatoes with onion, green chili and mustard oil, or alu posto, dhokar dalna, bati chocchori – all cooked in mustard oil.
Now, mustard oil is an acquired taste. I don’t know many Indians outside of Bengal who appreciate mustard oil as much as we do. They simply can not handle it. The strength, the sharpness, the jhaanj. So think about my poor, white husband who had to experience the first jolt of mustard oil in our house. He coughed, sneezed, hiccuped at the same time when he breathed in the air laden with double dose of mustard oil tempered with nigella seeds and dried red chilis.
“Oh my goodness, what is that? What are you cooking? What is this toxic gas? Are you trying to kill me?” Cough, cough, sneeze, sneeze!
I calmly answered, “That is just mustard oil.”
“It is deadly.”
I needed to assert how our way of life was going to be in our newly formed partnership and had to lay down the rules.
“Listen buddy! I love you to the moon and back. But my love is not unconditional. If you come between me and my mustard oil, this relationship is not going to last. I don’t buy fish heads so as not to gross you out and I only cook dried fish (shutki mach) when you are traveling. I have given up a lot for love. I will not give up mustard oil.”
He backed off. Now when I cook my Bengali food he quietly turns our big exhaust fan on and knows not to say anything. You can take the girl out of the land of mustard oil, you can not take the mustard oil out of the girl. Especially a girl who was massaged in mustard oil and laid out to bake in the sun during winter months as an infant because the grown ups during those days thought massaging a baby with mustard oil and laying them out in the sun was beneficial to skin, circulation system and muscles of the infant. So yes, my relationship with mustard oil is deep and long. NO one messes with it! 🙂