In one of his free-wheeling talks, well-known author William Dalrymple remembers meeting an octogenarian lady from pre-Partition Punjab; she reminisces about the good old days when the Rasoi (kitchen) was a large sprawling outhouse – and she was the queen of that domain. She remembers working and chattering happily there for hours alongside the other womenfolk; she remembers the large earthen oven heated by firewood; the large copper utensils and clay pots; and – in particular – she remembers the aroma of Mustard Oil wafting through the kitchen.
Back in those days no kitchen was complete without jars and jars of Mustard Oil stacked along one of the walls of the kitchen. The oil was used for everything from cooking, marinating and pickling to body massage, hair care and home remedies.
One of the lady’s most vivid memories were of the Mustard Oil being poured into the Kadhai (a large metal wok). As the thick golden-yellow liquid cascaded into the Kadhai, a mouth-watering aroma would fill the kitchen. A little later, when the oil reached its smoking point clouds of white smoke would rise up from the Kadhai and waft through the kitchen. The aroma of this smoke would drift across the courtyard and – seduced by its fragrance – some of the men would peep into the kitchen to get a preview of the delicacies being cooked.
As a child – she recalls – her eyes would burn because of the pungency of this smoke. She would often run away from the kitchen. Her grandmother would chide her and say: “Silly girl! This is the sign that our Mustard Oil is pure and full-bodied.”
Looking back now – against the backdrop of current research and scientific knowledge – we know that her grandmother was right… as grandmothers always tend to be!