The humble 'chekku ennai' or cold-pressed oil makes a comeback, but at a premium price

A friend, recently, was surprised to see a bottle of cold-pressed sesame oil on an organic store shelf. “It’s just old-fashioned chekku ennai!

When I was little, my sister and I used to bring back a brimming pail, from the chekku, for just Rs.5! But now, it costs more than refined oil!” After gently pointing out that, since she was pushing sixty, the Rs.5-a-pail was a very-long-time-ago, we decided to find out if cold-pressed oils, with their premium price tags (ranging, depending on the brand, from a small to a significant price differential over regular oils) are really worth the hype.

But first, a bit about cold-pressed oils.

Cold-pressing is the traditional method of extracting oil from seeds/fruits. The raw material (sesame/ peanut/ coconut/ sunflower seeds) is typically ground into a paste, and this is pressed with a heavy stone mill, turned by bullocks, until it expels the oil. This first-pressed oil, is sold unrefined, and without any additives.

Nutrients intact

“Cold-pressed oils have all their nutrients intact, retaining the natural properties of the oil-seeds, unlike refined oil,” says Chandra Padmanabhan, cookbook writer. “It’s a bit like atta and maida; the source is the same, but isn’t atta far superior to maida, nutritionally?” she asks. Nimmi Ittycheria John, nutritionist and diet consultant, says “refining degrades nutritional value, and more significantly, introduces harmful trans fats in an attempt to improve shelf life for commercial reasons”.

But, refined oils, produced on a large scale (the output for a commercial oil mill runs into tonnes, as opposed to a small chekku, whose daily output can be gathered in two tins!) and backed by vigorous media campaigns, had almost done away with traditionally extracted oils. Except, now, as with all things organic and natural, it’s increasingly becoming popular in urban homes.

“There is a lot of awareness now, on cold-pressed oils. I have customers coming from Vellore, to buy it. The supply though is limited; because, in a day, we can only extract two tins of oil from our chekku in Kallakurichi,” says M. N. Rajendran, owner, Annai Organic Foods. The low yield is because the oilseeds are not heated to increase the yield, and the oil that is expelled is cold and pure. Insisting on the importance of cold oils, Rajendran says that the oil extracted by large-scale mechanical presses comes out warm. “But cooking oil isn’t supposed to be pre-heated, isn’t it,” he asks.

“We Indians sadly only woke up to our age-old methods of oil extraction when the olive oil lobby began trumpeting terms such as ‘cold-pressed’ and ‘extra virgin,’” says Nimmi. Besides, sesame oil is in no way inferior to olive oil, says Chandra. “Both are mono-unsaturated oils, and cold-pressed sesame oil has similar health benefits. So there’s no pressing need to substitute imported olive oil in our recipes and compromise on the taste of South Indian food,” she reasons. “Cold-pressed sesame oil smells and tastes especially good,” says Rajendran. “When commercially manufactured, molasses is added to the oil, to mask its natural bitterness; but in a chekku, we add palm sugar or jaggery, which heightens its flavour.” And oil from a chekku keeps for a year, says Rajendran, as long as it’s stored in clay utensils.

Ancient wisdom

Understanding the importance of including more than one variety of cold-pressed oil in the diet, South Indian menus have always incorporated three — groundnut oil (with its high heating point) for frying, coconut oil for dressing, and sesame oil for curries and gravies. “All the three have their own benefits,” says Nimmi. “As much as coconut oil has received bad press being high in saturated fatty acids, which are considered potential artery cloggers, ironically it has medium chain fatty acids that are seen as heart protectors. However, to err on the side of caution, I'd advocate using these different oils (in moderation) like they were traditionally used in different dishes to get the benefit of each oil, especially in combination with other ingredients. For example, in a Kerala fish curry, the combination of kokum, fenugreek, Kashmiri chilli and oily fish might just complement a spoon of cold-pressed coconut oil drizzled on top while serving. These areas are greatly under-researched,” she says.

But whichever oil you use, use it sparingly, warns Chandra. “One gram of oil has 9 calories; 1 teaspoon, therefore, has 45 calories, the equivalent of half a chapatti. Remember, the unburned calories will sit around as fat!”