‘You don’t have any olive oil?’
Words by Lauren Magee
If anything’s grown from the ground or came from a tree, chances are it’s been turned into an oil at some stage. With the amount of oils available, it can be overwhelming to decide which one to use. Sometimes, it never hurts to stick with what you grew up with.
‘Where’s the oil?’ I asked him.
‘Oh, there’s some Canola spray in that cupboard over there,’ he answered. Canola spray? Please, god, no. He remained oblivious to my internal oil-related meltdown.
‘No wait, there should be some back here.’ I exhaled, relieved. He pulled out a plastic bottle of Coles home-brand vegetable oil.
‘You don’t have any olive oil?’
I guess this was it for us.
Since I was a kid, my very-Italian family told me the only ingredients you need to have in your cupboard are salt, pepper and olive oil. These, in addition to all the herbs growing in our backyard, were all you needed to make a good dish a great dish. So you can imagine my surprise when, as a twenty-four year old cooking at my very Anglo partner’s house, I can’t find a single drop of olive oil in his cupboard.
Growing up, my mum would always remind me of the importance of a Mediterranean diet. My great grandmother managed to heal a broken leg at eighty-five and she was wrinkle-less at ninety — my mum assured me that it was because of what she ate. My mum had always wanted to continue the legacy of home-grown meals that my great grandmother, nonna and nonno had given her and her siblings. She fed us well while teaching my brother and I how to be ‘proper Italians’. One of her lessons was taking us to the Motherland.
When we visited my family in Sicily, we ate pasta that was swimming in olive oil. It was different, it was delicious and it was everywhere: dripping off our bread, rolling down our hands and creating clumps in my dad’s beard. The olive trees stood tall and proud in the garden. Olive oil was the peak of our cultural heritage and I’d only just realised it. It was the one ingredient that could bring everything together and that included encouraging a long, indulgent future.
So when that scary bottle of vegetable oil came inevitably closer to my hand, I had to ignore my mum’s voice in the back of my head. I poured it into the pan, ready to ruin the eggplant chips I planned to make. To be fair, I don’t think the oil would’ve ruined anything that I couldn’t have ruined on my own — flashbacks of setting my fire alarm off after singeing some chicken schnitzels come rushing back to me. But it was terrifying and I think I now know why — have I been brainwashed by my family?
A friend of mine reassured me that I hadn’t been brainwashed. Her Greek family also used olive oil as their oil of choice. When I asked her why, she told me that Greek people use olive oil because it’s considered holy — an olive tree sits on top of the Acropolis in Athens. Legend has it that Zeus challenged the goddess Athena and the god Poseidon to a contest, offering the possession of Athens to the winner. Poseidon used his trident to make a crack in the Acropolis, releasing a spring of salt water. Athena created an olive tree abundant with fruit as a gift to the Athenians, so they chose her as their guardian. The Acropolis has been destroyed many times in past centuries but Athena’s olive tree has remained central to the culture of Athens. Seeds from the tree were planted across the city to spread the holy fruit among its people. Though it’s not the same tree that stands on top of the Acropolis today, the godliness of the original has not been lost with time. Aside from using the leaves in crowns made for the most prominent figures in Greek history, the olive tree is widely renowned for its diverse uses. Its wood was used to build ships, its oil is used as fuel and it’s still commonly used in all types of food. Plant more olive trees, I say!
This was reassuring — my family wasn’t the only one that used olive oil religiously. A few other friends of mine said they had recently made the switch to olive oil because they believe it’s healthier than using others like canola or vegetable. After some research, I found that olive oil is rich in monosaturated fats — great for maintaining good heart-health — and low in saturated fats (a diet high in saturated fats is commonly associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and weight gain). So olive oil isn’t bad for you — I totally knew it.
The most commonly used vegetable oils around the world, excluding Italy and Greece, are soybean and palm oil. Half of the entire planet use these in their cooking — olive oil is used by less than four percent of the entire population.
Why? But it’s so great! I hear you ask.
Most vegetable oils are sourced from plants that are widely grown, making them cheap to produce and cheap to buy. It’s great for the average consumer, but vegetable oils are often a mix of different types of oil; while individually they may be considered good for you, you never really know what you’re cooking with. There’s a lot of debate around which cooking oil is the healthiest. I’ll stick with olive oil for now.
Aside from its health benefits, olive oil doesn’t add a whole heap of flavour to dishes like other cooking oils. Peanut and sesame oil are widely used in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, and coconut oil is a staple in Sri Lankan dishes, much like olive oil is to Mediterranean food. I’m a massive fan of coconut — coconut rice might be my favourite take on classic carbs. After reading about this I just had to taste some traditional Sri Lankan dishes, so I spoke to a friend of mine who had recently spent a few months living in Sri Lanka (and also happens to be Sri Lankan).
For me, culture has always been synonymous with food. I consider myself well-travelled and the most important part of travelling for me is eating local specialties and traditional cuisine. I couldn’t travel to Sri Lanka as immediately as I’d wished, but thankfully my long-time friend invited me to her home to learn how to cook a traditional Sri Lankan dish from her mother and grandmother. I didn’t really know a lot about Sri Lankan food — it’s not as widely cooked in Australia and is often mistaken for Indian food. Though some of the dishes carry the same name, the difference in taste, flavour and method is defining. I was introduced to this amazing cuisine through a simple onion sambal. It’s a mixture of chopped onion, tomato, garlic, turmeric and chilli flakes, commonly eaten as a side or as a sandwich. The key characteristic of this dish is its use of coconut oil — it leaves a sweet taste in your mouth when the tang of the chilli has worn off (which is great for people like me who think pepper is too spicy).
The benefits of coconut oil stretch from adding an almost-sweet flavours to dishes all the way to making your hair stronger. Putting coconut oil through your hair is a local tradition in Sri Lanka — it’s known to increase its shine, length and strength, as well as deepening hair colour. When I questioned my friend about why they use that type of oil, she told me that she personally uses olive oil now because she prefers it, but will occasionally cook with coconut or canola depending on what she’s making. I guess she has less of a cultural connection to coconut oil than I do with olive oil, but the benefits of both outside of cooking are pretty clear (and awesome).
Learning the traditions of another culture through their favoured oil has been a wonderful and eye-opening experience. I’ve accidentally learnt more about myself in the process — mainly how my culture has influenced my cooking and eating habits. Though I’m excited to cook some meals out of my cultural depth, I’m happy knowing I’m continuing an olive oil legacy that’s been passed down through generations. I guess my family hadn’t brainwashed me into thinking olive oil is great — a lot of other people think so too. Now, I’m off to plant my own olive tree, put coconut oil through my hair and learn how to cook new food. Wish me luck!