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A dash of virgin, ji?

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A flacon of olive oil is beginning to look very much at home next to the haldi and dhania containers.

Its debut into desi kitchens was so subtle, one almost missed it. Some years ago, I chanced upon huge canisters of olive oil stacked neatly alongside storage tins in a Coonoor-based friend's pantry. Her husband had just had a heart attack and so, Sudha Badrinarayan had switched to olive oil on a doctor friend's advice. She used it for all the food that appeared on her table, from curries to chutneys and sautêed vegetables. Not sambar, though. The Badrinarayans were enthusiastic converts.

That was a while ago. Then Bertolli and Leonardo sashayed into India, landing on the shelves in virtually every department store. 'Ah, Indians are now using the Real McCoy (or Real Macallo) for their salads and pasta, ' I thought. That thought went out of the window when I set eyes on a startling advert that showed halfa-pizza jostling for plate space with half-a-roti. Never mind that it was one hell of a confused message, the product under scrutiny was yes, olive oil. Obviously, some kind of cooking oil evolution was under way.

Sure enough, all the varieties of olive oil were now available to the gourmet and the enthusiast alike: extra virgin, virgin, regular olive oil, olive pomace oil. From being the queen of massage and facials oils, this prima donna had stepped into the Indian kitchen. You now had experts propounding its benefits;Sanjeev Kapoor telling us that, contrary to popular belief, extra virgin worked very well for Indian food;Prahlad Kakkar on demo tours of cities for the cause of olive oil. India sat up and watched.

As for me, a random search threw up a host of people who are fans and users of olive oil. Geeta D'Souza, who used to run her own catering company in Bangalore, says, "Ever tried making gobi with capsicum, green peas and slivers of ginger in olive oil? It tastes simply wonderful. I use olive oil for most Indian veggies, it doesn't overpower but in fact, blends well with Indian spices and masalas. "

Madhumita Mitra, a Delhi-based lawyer, has colonised olive oil successfully. "I give stir-fry veggies a light tadka with panch phoron, jeera and saunf. And I have a friend who uses olive oil for upma, too... it tastes amazing, I assure you. " And Bangalore-based Dolly C A seasons paneer and mushroom dishes with a dash of olive oil. North Indian dishes, she avers, taste better with olive oil.

Arunima Singh, Manager F&B Sales at a hotel in Hyderabad, is one committed aficianado. "We are averse to the idea of using olive oil for cooking because of our preconceived notions that they will ruin the taste of curry. Ever since I switched to this oil, nothing has changed ... except for my weight and fitness levels! I'm an experimental cook, I keep trying different cuisine, be it Thai, Chinese, Italian or Indian, and whatever the food is, the oil is olive oil. Indian cuisine being my forte, I end up cooking everything, be it non-veg or veg curries, rice preparations or any kind of paranthas, in olive oil. " It's also value for money though it seems expensive. All kinds of Indian food can be cooked in one-third the quantity of other oils. One litre of olive oil should last for a good three months.

Olive oil has become a constant in desi kitchens abroad, too. Sample these affirmations. Ujwala Samant, a non-profit management associate, who lives with her family in New Jersey, says, "I tried cooking with olive oil, beginning with tadka: the very light olive oil worked well, and heeng mercifully killed the odour that olive oil typically exudes. I figured if I could use it for Bolognaise sauce and Ratatouille, I could use it to make vegetable curries. "
Runalee Urankar, a Seattle-based management consultant, 'always' uses olive oil. "I use it instead of ghee in chutneys. It's all about healthy food and great taste!"

Gita Iyer of Granite Bay, California, knows her olive oil well. "I routinely use olive oil for those food items that use oil as flavour rather than a medium for seasoning. Vethakozhambu in my home has a combination of ghee and olive oil. I mix my kalandha saadhams as in lemon rice/puliyodarai/pomegrante rice/ mango rice/sesame rice, with extra virgin olive oil. I also use olive oil to cover/bottle and preserve pickles. "

On the stats side, too, the figures look good. Reports state that the domestic olive oil segment is growing by about 50 per cent per annum;this growth rate is expected to go up further. India's olive oil space, which stood at 2, 800 tonnes in 2010, grew to 4, 000 tonnes in 2011 and is expected to touch 6, 000 tonnes in 2012, valued at roughly Rs 350 crore. This includes both the massage and edible olive oil segments.

The International Olive Council (IOC), a UNDP-promoted inter-governmental organisation based in Madrid, feels that India, with its rapidly growing economy and traditions of natural and vegetarian cuisine, is fecund ground for olive oil as a cooking medium, and is working to publicise its many health benefits.

The main hurdle, though, continues to be the price of olive oil. One-litre bottles retail anywhere between Rs 400 and Rs 1, 000. Then again, a country that is pausing thoughtfully at the organic food counters, is only too likely to opt for good health over cost.

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