Fat is a foodie issue. For some decades now, there has been a divergence of opinion between the medical establishment and people who love good food. Most foodies have no real problems with fat. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that if you don’t like butter, the taste of a good olive oil, the little specks of marbled fat on a steak, the delicious fatty taste of top quality bacon (assuming, of course, that you eat meat, pork, beef etc.) or the rich fatty flavour of homemade ice cream, you are probably not a foodie at all.
The medical establishment, on the other hand, takes a view that is not only complex but also changes every few years or so. For decades we were told that fat would make us tubby. Cut out the fat content of our meals (“make your salads without oil….”), and we would all become slim. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is too simplistic a view. And besides, research over the last decade suggested that it was starch (white bread, white rice, etc.) not fat that made you fat.
That discovery led to the popularity of high-protein diets where you were allowed to eat butter, bacon etc. as long as you steered clear of pizza, pasta etc. Medicine now concedes (grudgingly) that yes, anybody who embarks on a high protein diet will lose weight no matter how many calories are consumed. But doctors argue, accurately enough, that too much fat can clog the arteries and contribute to putting pressure on the heart.
Except that it is not as simple as that, either. Some decades ago, doctors came to the conclusion that some fats were really bad for you while some were okay. The science is a little boring (monounsaturated, poly-unsaturated, blah, blah, blah) so I’ll spare you all those details. But what the doctors said, in essence, was that animal fat was bad while vegetable fat was good.
So we stopped cooking in ghee. We put away the butter. And we switched to vegetable-oil based substitutes like Dalda and margarine. Then, medicine had a change of heart. Actually, said the doctors, stuff like Dalda was worse for your heart than ghee. (They took care to wait for many decades and thousands of heart attacks to come to this conclusion.) The real problem was trans fats or hydrogenated fats. Again, I’ll spare you the science (all about adding extra hydrogen atoms to molecules or something as boring) but basically what they said was that if ‘good fats’ (i.e. vegetable fats) were converted in any way (from liquid to solid as in Dalda) then they became Very Bad Fats.
So, a new orthodoxy developed. Trans fats were bad. Animal fat was still not very good. But olive oil was the best. The empirical evidence for this was something called the French Paradox which used statistics to show that the French who ate lots of red meat had low rates of heart disease because they drank red wine and cooked in olive oil. Both red wine and olive oil contained substances that went through the arteries removing plaque and therefore acted as nature’s own heart-attack preventers.
There were two problems with the French Paradox. The first was that the lowest rates of heart disease occurred in those parts of France where they cooked in butter or lard, not olive oil. And secondly, rates of heart disease are going up in France even as olive oil becomes more popular.
At present, the health establishment is in disarray when it comes to fat. About all we can agree on is that trans fats are bad. Vegetable oils in their natural state are probably okay (but beware of excessive health claims made by every expensive imported oil) And there’s nothing wrong with butter, ghee or a little animal fat but don’t eat too much of it.
All this makes foodies feel much, much better. We may or may not always realise it but most great food cultures are based on a foundation of fat. When Auguste Escoffier, the French chef who codified old-style haute cuisine, was asked what the three great secrets of French cuisine were, he said “butter, butter and butter”.
And the French use a lot of other animal fat too: they like to cook their potatoes in goose fat, they use lard for baking and their great delicacy, foie gras, is nearly all poultry fat. In the Mediterranean, the cuisine is based on olive oil. The Chinese like to pretend that their cuisine is healthy and fat free but they love their pork fat.
Which brings us to India. When we think of rich and complex vegetarian cuisines, we like to imagine that they have no room for animal fat. In fact, the basis of many Indian vegetarian haute cuisines is animal fat: ghee.
Indians don’t like to think of milk as an animal product but that is what it really is (even if no animals are harmed in its production). Because all cuisines need a dose of animal fat now and then to make their dishes work, most Indian vegetarian styles of cooking respected milk fat for the richness it brought to dishes.
In the North-East they don’t have much time for milk, so they use pig fat for the richness; this is why so many of their dishes have large chunks of pork, and a good momo is one where the animal fat in the stuffing has melted and coated the meat. In the North, there is a divergence between Hindu and Muslim styles of cooking. Hindus rely on dairy fat while Muslims like goat fat. None of them feels any embarrassment about the quantities of fat they use. Tell a traditional Hindu chef to go easy on the ghee and he will act as though you have destroyed the basis of his cuisine.
Muslim chefs are more upfront. Talk to a traditional Qureshi chef and, because he comes from a butchery tradition, he will hold forth at length about the kinds of goat fat that go into his dishes. Most recipes will specify which part of the animal the fat comes from. The most famous recipe is the one for the kakori kebab. The lean meat keema comes from the top of the thigh of the goat but good chefs will not use the fat from that part of the animal. Instead they will take the fat from around the kidney and add it to the lean meat.
Though the Qureshis are reluctant to part with their recipes, animal fat is often the secret ingredient in many of their dishes. Other chefs have taken those techniques and used them but not always with the same finesse. For instance, while judging Foodistan I was served a biryani with the unmistakable taste of goat which was odd because the dish had no meat – or so we were told. It turned out that the chef had put in a little kidney fat (from a goat) in the finishing to give the biryani a richness. At dhabas in parts of India where beef is legal, some cooks will put a little beef fat into the gravy at the final stages (even if the curry is made from chicken or goat) just to give the dish a meaty heft.
On the other hand, Hyderabadi cuisine is much less dependent on fat. While shooting for the second season of Custom Made last week in Hyderabad, I had the honour of enjoying a meal cooked by the great Mehboob Alam Khan. The kebabs at his house were divine but he made sure to point out that unlike the rival Lucknow tradition, Hyderabadi cuisine relied on the flavours of meat and spices without requiring chefs to add extra animal fat to everything.
My own view on fat is that while I’m aware of the health aspects, I think it is silly to try and eliminate it from food. Ice cream tastes best when the fat content is high. Pork is not much of a meat without the fat. There is simply no substitute for butter. A good olive oil is worth using for the taste alone no matter how many calories it has.
And fat used correctly can be divine. The single best Kerala-style beef fry I have ever eaten was made by Purushotham, the Leela group’s legendary South Indian chef who despite being an Andhraite has mastered Mrs Leela Nair’s Malayali recipes. All of Purushotham’s beef fries (like the rest of his food) are fantastic but on this occasion, he made the dish with Australian Wagyu. As the meat cooked, the fat melted and gently coated the masala with delicious richness. The mixture of fat and spice was simply irresistible.
So here’s my advice: don’t worry too much about the doctors; they change their minds every week. Eat fat in moderation and once it is in your mouth, enjoy the silky richness of good butter, a delicious olive oil, or a melting kakori kebab.
From HT Brunch, October 28
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