Mustard smells like horseradish. Did you know? I didn’t. But perhaps I should have. I come from a solidly German family, after all. My mom hailed from probably the most German town in America, and I grew up eating lots of Sunday night dinners like kielbasa, bratwurst, sweet and sour potato salad, and German chocolate cake. But it wasn’t until I landed in Surya’s home that the similarity hit me.
I didn’t even know you could make such a thing as mustard oil, but there it was, sitting on a shelf in the bathroom. A thin film of dust donned the cap. A couple of cobwebs clung to one side of the glass bottle, and the words on the label bled from the small amount of oil that had seeped through. In the corner behind it, a dead cockroach lay forgotten.
It had been a while since Surya was forced to put mustard on his body. He lived in North America now, and, well, it’s just not done over here. People look at you with a weird face if you do. Surya’s mother used to rub him with the oil when he was small; it’s supposed to be good for your skin, she’d say, a habit akin to forcing a teaspoon of castor oil down tiny, kid throats.
If you’ve cooked any Indian dishes, you probably know that mustard seed is a common ingredient all over India, but the use of mustard oil as a cooking agent is particular to the Northeast. Both mustard seeds and mustard oil are frequently used in West Bengal. They have a
particular affinity with the hilsa fish that Bengalis relish. In fact, Bengalis most celebrated dish, Bhapa Ilish is flavored almost exclusively with mustard.
Mustard oil is one of the better choices for cooking healthful food because it contains the desired proportions of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Fans consider it a healthier choice than olive oil because it contains no trans-fats and a high percentage of unsaturated fats. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that mustard oil, because it contains a high amount of a-linoleic acid (ALA), can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks.
You have to be a little careful in buying mustard oil, especially in the West, because it comes in both benign and toxic varieties (I sense a trend in the Bengali inclination for pernicious foodstuffs). For years it was banned for any kind of human consumption, available only for external purposes (like a head massage). That’s because there is some confusion between mustard cooking oil and mustard essential oil. The cooking oil is made in a fashion similar to olive oil. Cold compression extracts oil from the seeds, making it safe to eat. However, to make essential oil, the seeds are macerated in warm water by steam or water distillation. And when mustard seeds are subjected simultaneously to pressure, heat, and water two of its components — myrosinase and sinigrin — react to form a toxic compound.
As a vegetable oil, however, mustard makes up for the unfortunate properties of its cousin. It’s versatile. You can keep a bottle in the kitchen and in the bathroom. It’s healthy for the inside and out. It’s actually one of a variety of oils used in Ayurvedic massage.
Of course, I had no idea of mustard oil’s diverse applications when a few years back on a vacation trip to the Malabar Coast I goaded Surya into getting an Ayurvedic massage. I’d never tried an Ayurvedic massage, and Surya had never tried any, so I thought it would be a great way to satisfy our curiosity.
Except, he wasn’t curious. Ayurveda is one of several Hindu traditions that Surya tucks into cobwebby areas of his brain and catalogues as “hocus pocus.” But – good man – he knew that Westerners were a curious sort, and he was with a Westerner now. And, lucky for me, it was raining that day across the tea estates of Munnar, so there was really nothing else to do.
While we sat in the hallway which served as the “spa’s” makeshift waiting room, I assured Surya that he wouldn’t have to strip completely naked, that he’d probably get to stare out a large picture window and watch the rain patter down onto the river that meandered past our hotel. He’d be lulled nearly to sleep by the aroma of lavender or sandalwood and by the sounds of sitar music playing in the background.
“It’s relaxing,” I said. “You’ll feel rejuvenated.”
Not long afterwards, we were taken our separate ways. The young woman steered me to a small chamber to the left. The man took Surya around the corner. I’ll never know what happened to Surya after that. He doesn’t like to talk about it. But I imagine the experience was somewhat similar to mine: the request to strip naked and lay on a cold, metal countertop. Then silence. And a dousing in oil. There was a window, but it looked out onto a patch of concrete where a few men were busy watering the hotel’s planters. At least the shade was drawn. I closed my eyes, shivered, and listened to the rain outside. I felt not so much that I was with a massage therapist than that I had entered the hotel kitchen to be prepared as a roast. Her hands never actually seemed to touch my skin because they were hydroplaning on a good ¼ inch of oil. All that was needed were a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme tucked under my armpits and stuffed up my nose. The entire time I thought about death. Once Surya escaped from his room, he was going to kill me. I would never suggest a massage again. Ever. And then, every so often, I would be jolted back to the present when the pair oily hands slipped and punched me in the face.
I was sent to a closet after that and into gas chamber-like steam bath with only a small opening for my head. The therapist checked that the chamber lock was secure, nodded, then left and shut the door behind her. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, but since none of my limbs were available to me I just sat still, hoping I wouldn’t be forgotten. That’s when the closet slowly filled with a distinct mustard smell. I sat for a good fifteen minutes in what must have been the equivalent of an Inglehoffer production plant.
I was happily rescued, given a skimpy towel and sent to a miniature shower. Appropriately, the therapist handed me a miniature bar of soap, too. I watched it dwindle to a thin strip under the water. You don’t consider all the downsides of long hair until you meet with moments like these. Did I mention that the water was cold as well?
I stepped out to find Surya waiting for his turn. He was laughing at least. Until he asked for the soap. He looked at me, desperate.
“She said you had the soap.”
I waved a greasy lock of hair in his face. “I needed it.”
The rain was still coming down when we got back to our room. And it poured all the next day. It was surprising relief, and we used the time to hide out, showering every couple of hours, and ordering plates of pakoras while we watched Animal Planet.
The next time I had mustard oil it was back in Calcutta, in the dining room, with a plate and a side of rice. I wholeheartedly recommend mustard oil in edible form. And this recipe is like no other Indian you’ve tried. I mean that in a good way.
4 fillets hilsa (salmon is a reasonable substitute)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons yellow (brown) mustard seeds
1 teaspoon white poppy seeds
2-3 Thai green chilies
2-3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
4 Tablespoons yogurt (or to taste)
Salt to taste
4-6 Tablespoons mustard oil
Wash and clean the fish, and pat them dry with a paper towel. Place in a baking dish and rub all sides with salt and half the turmeric. Next, squeeze the lime juice all over the fish. Set aside.
In a spice grinder, grind the mustards seeds and the poppy seeds until they become a powder. In another small blender or food processor, combine the mustard seed mixture, the ginger, chilies, the remaining turmeric and grind. Add the yogurt, a couple tablespoons of the mustard oil and mix to form a thick paste. You can add more oil or yogurt to reach your desired consistency. Add salt to taste.
Rub the paste all over each fillet of fish. Pour a little more oil over each fillet. You can keep the fish in the dish, covering it with foil, or you can wrap each in individual foil pouches.
Bake the fish at 375F for 25-30 minutes
After 10-15 minutes remove the foil cover and bake uncovered for the remaining 15 minutes.
Serve with rice.