Postman… Naturally

Did this iconic brand of kitchen oil from the ’50s have iconic taste?

There has not been a single person who knew my grandmother who hasn’t told me what an incredible cook she was. Her travel, knowledge and personality (which unfortunately I never got to witness growing up) is very evident in her recipe collection. Mostly cutouts from newspapers, some even from the back of carton boxes or others scribbled down as dictated by a friend.

There are so many incredible things that recipes talk about from a period in time — cooking techniques, food trends, kitchen equipment and (the reason for this post) ingredients.

So what was Postman Oil?

Ahmed Mills started the production of refined groundnut oil (Postman Oil) in 1949. They had a sizable market share in major metros and was the most common used brand of cooking oil in the domestic household across India. Unfortunately multitple events (disputes and a run in with a food inspector) caused production to stall towards the end of the 80’s.

Ahmed Mills continues to be one of the leading edible oil companies in the country and enjoys 70 per cent of the market share followed by NDDB’s Dhara. (2013)

What do we remember about Postman?

Back to my grandmother — One of her newspaper clippings was a recipe was of a chili garlic pickle specifically asking for postman oil.

I had never heard of Postman before! Did this oil have a specific taste? Did it make the pickle all the more special? I had to find out!

Some of my southern coastal relatives and friends said things like this:

No, we didn’t use any cooking media other than coconut oil or ghee

or this:

But thanks to mostly everyone being on WhatsApp and my ever so enthusiastic mother’s connections I got some very interesting replies.

Postman Oil dominated the market and kitchens. Right from it being a necessity while frying lucchi or making diwali sweets to being a staple for everyday home cooking, everyone (except for some of our coconut friends)used postman.

“Is this a real question?”

That was one of the replies I got.

Well, yes.

The answers though were not the idealistic (chef-in-me) kind that I thought of.

When I asked why use Postman, in my head it had this iconic taste to go with the iconic brand it was. But the responses I got made me think of a few more questions to ask about food choices — how big of a role does taste actually play in our food choices? Did postman capture the market because it met the criteria of price, health and taste? Is it even important to care about the taste of oil? Is taste elitist?

So, is there any purpose to writing about Postman?

Even if I cannot understand political and economic agenda of our food industry completely (yes, I am reading Michael Moss) I’m thinking this — Lets put aside taste, nutrition, price for a second.

The texts that I received were full of memories. Memories of dishes and mothers in the kitchen and the big blue tin.

So maybe its not the chemical or physical flavour of the oil that was important after all but the taste of the memories of the past that we relive through food.