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Your guide to ghee; through the eyes of people who grew up eating it

December 4, 2020

coriander spices and ghee

The golden ghee on the spoon appeared to have more in common with body butter than cooking fat. It smelled a bit like caramel, was soft and grainy, melting on the tongue and tasting like fudge. I wanted more.

This was totally different from the ghee in green tins, piled high in Dubai supermarkets. I now understood why friends back in the Emirates went misty-eyed when talking about ghee and said they only used homemade.

I fried things with my ghee, stirred it into cooked lentils, rice and pasta, roasted potatoes and parsnips in it (fantastic by the way) and tried to resist eating it straight out of the jar. It was a gorgeous game-changer but when I raved about it to friends in the UK there were a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer with conviction.

So I sought help from friends of Indian heritage who grew up with ghee. They shared their knowledge, experience and much, much more. They told me stories that are not just about something delicious to eat; ghee is woven into their lives, memories and culture. This is a guide to ghee through their eyes:

What is ghee?

Used for centuries as a way of preserving cream from the family cow, ghee is a type of clarified butter that can be heated to high temperatures for cooking and will not go off for a long time. It’s known as ghee in India (a Hindi word) and at the heart of all the stories here. So many people I spoke to described it as a pot of gold.

Ghee is used in other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka but there are variations of clarified butter in countries around the world. From a type of fermented ghee called smen that is used throughout the Middle East and North Africa to beurre noisette in France. Ghee is also used in UAE cuisine which is a fusion of tradition and trading influences, a topic for another day.

ginger spices and ghee

Making ghee

“The ghee parable” as Shiyam called it.  He told me that ghee was born out of necessity. Butter has a shelf life of ten days and will become rancid, while clarified fat will keep for up to 100 days or more. Cow or Buffalo milk is soured by lactic acid bacteria into dahi (curd), it is churned to obtain butter, the leftover buttermilk is made into chaas. Souring improves the quality of butter and imparts a unique flavor to the ghee.

Butter from the sour curd is heated between 90-120C, the water evaporates and the milk solids that brown, drop to the bottom of the pan. The clarified ghee is rich in antioxidants which delays the onset of rancidity. 1kg of cultured butter will yield 650-700g of ghee.

Shiyam grew up eating ghee, “We have cows and buffalo at home in India. My grandmother lives in a small town called Udumalipettai, in the foothills of the Western Ghats.  She makes homemade ghee and has a ritual; she churns the curd everyday and collects butter in an earthenware pot at six in the morning. She uses a long, wooden churner with a bulbous head attached with string. The rhythmic strokes, and the ray of sun hitting the pot, warm the curd just enough to separate the butter. 

The butter which is derived from curd has a funk which develops over a couple of days. 
In a copper (kadai) she sets the butter on embers (choola is the traditional wood burning stove). The butter melts and starts to bubble, the smell wafts through the house. She increases the heat slowly and this lets the water evaporate, the milk solids to settle to the bottom and the milk to brown. She adds a few sprigs of moringa leaves to flavour the ghee during the summer; during winter she adds black peppercorns and betel leaves as it has warming properties. 
The ghee is gently strained and stored in a brass container. 
Jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar) can be added to the milk fat along with cardamom and edible camphor and reincarnated into a sweet.  As kids we used to fight to clean the vessel as you get to scrape the leftovers.”

This same ritual is passed down through generations. Sarah’s mum was a teacher so juggled prepping ghee for her family with a full-time job where they lived in Pune (Poona). “My mum used to make ghee every two weeks. She would boil milk (from glass bottles) until a thick layer or skin formed. This would be skimmed off and kept in a tub in the fridge, then made into butter. She would cook this slowly until there were 3 layers – milk solids at the bottom, clarified butter in the middle and foam on top. When the milk solids turned golden brown, she would skim the foam off and strain the liquid. She poured it into a jar, left it to cool, then kept it in the fridge. She would use the milk solids in sweet chapatis, with a bit of sugar and some cardamom. They were a lovely treat.”

Devina’s mum shed light on how to adapt traditional ghee-making to a busy life in the city of Dubai. “In India, people first collect the malai (cream) which forms on the milk after it is boiled. After a lot of malai has been collected, it is boiled on a low flame until it turns liquid and translucent. Care must be taken not to burn it at the bottom, and it should be a nice golden colour.

Here in Dubai, we don’t have time to collect malai and boil milk! So I boil unsalted Lurpak butter instead using the same method. Just take care not to boil it to the extent where it burns – this is because the milk solids which separate from the liquid can burn and give off an awful smell.”
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ghee and spices

Cooking and eating ghee

“Growing up in an Indian household the use of ghee is the inevitable,” says Delna summing up the thread that is shared by all.   “I’d even go one step further to say using ghee is also a sign of extending heart-warming hospitality, love and care for your family and guests. It’s that sudden gush of aroma when food is served that only ghee can achieve, which sets the tone of ‘we’ve prepared the very best for you’. This may be a generous smear of melted ghee on Indian breads (rotis, naans), mini-dollops of ghee as the finishing touch of the biryani before it goes on dum (steam cooking) or even using ghee, instead of oil, in the tadka (seasoning) of spices and herbs as the final step when making dal (lentil curry) or rasam (spiced pepper water).”

“Any roti or any hot or reheated bread with ghee works,” advises Mufaddal, “like good bread with good butter – you don’t need anything else.” This ideal partnership of bread and ghee is eulogised by everyone:

Sarah’s mum would wake up early and make rotis, putting a dot of ghee on each while still warm as she slipped them into lunchboxes for school. Delna remembers that on a rainy day or a cold winter morning her Mom would enjoy her cup of chai along with a toasted slice of bread with a generous spread of ghee sprinkled with sugar.

This was called ‘toop-sakhar’ (ghee-sugar) in Devina’s house and she asked her Mom to make it for a snack as she ran into the house after school. She also has fond memories of her Dadi (her paternal Grandmother) “who used to make the best puran polis in the world”. These are an Indian flatbread that are stuffed with a mixture of dal and jaggery then doused in ghee. She says that every sweet bite is a reminder of her Dadi’s generosity with her time and food.

Using ghee for deep of shallow frying, instead of oil, is a practice that goes back centuries in India. But these days, good quality ghee is prized as too good for using as a cooking medium. It’s eaten as is (as I discovered) or for finishing a dish at the end where it adds a lot of richness and flavour. ‘We drizzle it over everything’ is a phrase I hear again and again.  This is either plain ghee or as a tadka, which translates as tempering. Whole or ground spices are briefly roasted in ghee to infuse it with their flavours and aromas.

Ghee is added to dals, khichdi, curries and rice dishes like pulaos (pulavs, pilafs). It would be impossible to imagine a good biryani without this luxurious final flourish. Others have suggested using it to make paneer masala, daal fry, roasting chicken and potatoes, in scrambled eggs, spreading it on toast, mixing it with honey to put on bread and even in baking. Eating ghee is used as a way to ward off hunger by having a spoonful first thing in the morning or stirred into hot milk to prevent midnight cravings.  As Sarah says, “That’s the tip of the ghee-berg”.

The caramelisation that makes it golden and slightly sweet, combined with its luxurious aroma and creamy taste is why it’s been popular in Indian cooking for so long and, more recently, gaining wider popularity, explains Delna.

Ghee is also at the heart of many Indian desserts, like semolina pudding and sweets. Sarah loved the smell of ghee when used in “mithai” especially when given Diwali sweets from friends. This aroma is something that divides people however and she says that her family don’t like it.

It’s clear that ghee is fundamental to Indian cuisine. “Using ghee in my cooking is non-negotiable,” confesses Delna.

Other uses of ghee

The role and importance of ghee in Indian culture is as important as in the kitchen. Shiyam sums it up, “From birth to death ghee plays an integral part.

Ghee signifies purity. It is a source of nourishment, energy, power, intellect. Annaprasanam is a ceremony that happens when a child turns six months. This is very significant as the child eats rice for the first time. Rice is cooked with ghee and jaggery and fed to the child.”

I mention smelling the scent of ghee when threading our way through the narrow lanes near the Creek in my post about Diwali in Dubai. This is because cotton wicks are put into small dishes and submerged in ghee to be lit at the Hindu temple or for religious ceremonies in the home.

Ghee is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicines. It’s one of the ingredients allowed in the Sattvic diet (which is based on whole unprocessed vegetarian foods) as it’s said to contain the essence of grass and plants that the cows eat.

Is ghee actually good or bad for your health? Like many ‘superfoods’ there are lots of disputed claims about whether it is beneficial for health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, improving eyesight and boosting the immune system to name a few, or whether it’s a contributing factor to obesity and increased levels of cholesterol in the blood.

In the past it was attributed as a factor in weight loss and, more recently, approved for Paleo, GAPS, FODMAP, Whole30, Banting and Keto diets. Without going down a ghee-health rabbit-hole, my own view is that most whole foods aren’t harmful if eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Really good quality ghee does contain vitamins A, D, E and K and very low or nil levels of lactose and casein (which could be good for those intolerant to them).

It’s also a traditional Indian home remedy. I’m told that it makes a great natural moisturizer (although Mufaddel says that the smell can be an issue for some. Eau de ghee anyone?) “Use it on the soles of your feet, rub them and sleep well” recommends Cherida.  Delna agrees with its hydrating effects on lips, knees and elbows and says to mix it with a little bit of gram flour and turmeric powder, for a soothing no-fuss face DIY mask.

She tells me about a visit to an Ayurvedic resort in Mysore, India. “They kick-started our days with a spoonful of ghee, followed with some warm, melted ghee poured down your nostrils to clear stuffy noses followed by a neti pot rinse (the best sleep those days as my nostrils were superbly clear!).”

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ghee and spices

Where to get good ghee

“It’s common to hear many conversations around ghee – from the most recommended and traditional brands in the market to sharing homemade ghee recipes which many mothers will take great pride in,” Delna tells me.

If you’re lucky enough to find some ghee that’s homemade to a family recipe in an Indian kitchen, treasure it. You could also try making your own – there are hundreds of recipes online.

Be discerning if buying ghee as there is a huge difference between the bland mass-produced stuff and the irresistible, small-batch pots of gold.

In Dubai, Cherida recommends buying Natureland A2 ghee from Organic Planet in Karama while Noorin Ansari stocks up on locally made ghee from the Waterfront market in Deira.*

In UK, the one that’s opened my eyes to the ambrosial qualities of the good stuff is Happy Butter Organic ghee** which is handmade in small batches using local, organic milk, by Kate and Rupert, in a Devon village (coincidentally 20 miles from where I am right now).

In your kitchen

Word of the delicious properties of ghee is spreading. While still fundamental, it’s not solely used in traditional Indian cooking any longer. Keen cooks and chefs are exploring how to use it with other ingredients, cuisines and cooking methods. To quote Happy Butter, ‘From bulletproof coffees, frying salmon, roasting chicken and potatoes, frying pancakes, and as the oil in any dinnertime cooking, it deserves centre stage in your kitchen.’

A quick note on storage; ghee is fine kept in the cupboard just as you would olive oil or other cooking mediums. There is no need to refrigerate unless you get water or any other food-stuffs into it. Keep dry and in a dark place – it won’t be there for long once you start using it, trust me.

Delna has the last word: “Before the world claimed and magnified it’s benefits to the world through fancy labels and packaging, our good ol’ Indian grandmas have been propagandizing the use of ghee from times past. I remember a phase when ghee was frowned upon as ‘fats to avoid’ but today, I’m glad to say, it’s the one thing we all embrace and for all the good reasons.”

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Jar of Happy Butter ghee

Happy Butter Organic Ghee

Contributors

Many thanks to everyone who helped with my research and were so generous in sharing their personal stories:

Thanks also to Cherida Fernandez, Noorin Ansari, Stephanie Mahmoud, Nahlaa Tabbaa, Ritu Chaturvedi, Torie True, Jules and everyone who sent me their suggestions on Instagram.

And there’s a fascinating ‘Deep Fried’ podcast about ghee from Frying Pan Adventures that’s well worth a listen.  *Noorin and Cherida are guests and the latter has written a blog post: Ghee-wiz– Discovering the surprise that clarified butter holds.

** Disclosure: Kate and Rupert from Happy Butter Organic Ghee sent me some jars of their ghee. I’m under no obligation to write about it but the quality and taste is extraordinary and they’ve converted me to the ambrosial qualities of ghee. There will be a jar in my kitchen from now on.

Tell me more

If you’d like to share your stories about ghee, your favourite ways to use it and the part it has played in your life, I love to hear from you. Have you used clarified butter from a different origin (I’m especially keen to learn more about how it’s used in the UAE). Please send any questions about ghee too – if I can’t answer them I know someone who can…

17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2020 3:28 pm

    Really fascinating, Sally. Thank you!

    • December 4, 2020 4:07 pm

      Glad you enjoyed reading it. It was fascinating to research and hear all these personal stories.

  2. Suman Lynn permalink
    December 4, 2020 5:24 pm

    Indeed a lovely read Sally. So beautifully written. Being an Indian I can relate to all of the above. Can’t live without ghee in my household. Grew up including ghee in my food all the time especially smearing a generous amount on chapati with sugar and good to go on a school day. Am go so glad to have a found a brand here in Dubai which my kids enjoy now. Nostalgic!!

    • December 4, 2020 7:05 pm

      I’m thrilled you feel like that Suman. Personally, I was drawn into so many people’s kitchens and round their firesides in my mind from their stories. You’ve just added to that. Thank you so much

  3. December 4, 2020 6:55 pm

    What a wonderful post Sally! Informative, and written beautifully to draw amazing portraits!

    • December 4, 2020 7:06 pm

      Thank you Dorothy. Really appreciated. Getting to know people through food is the best way don’t you think?

      • December 4, 2020 7:14 pm

        Oh, absolutely Sally. There isn’t a day I don’t learn something from fellow bloggers! I feel blessed to be able to communicate with my blog pen pals all around the world, gaining insights on culture and the food that connects us all!

  4. Patricia @ Grab a Plate permalink
    December 4, 2020 7:04 pm

    I love the idea of ghee being “a pot of gold.” I loved reading these family stories – lovely.

    • December 4, 2020 7:06 pm

      Thank you Patricia – and yes a pot of gold that doesn’t need to be buried but shared.

  5. Lisalia permalink
    December 4, 2020 7:53 pm

    I love knowing more about Ghee! This is such an informative and helpful post. Thanks Sally!

    • December 4, 2020 10:28 pm

      My eyes were opened to the enormous topic of ghee from all these wonderful stories. Thanks Lisalia

  6. December 4, 2020 8:02 pm

    I really enjoyed your information and stories. A joy to read.

    • December 4, 2020 10:26 pm

      I’m so so glad Angela. Thanks for your very kind words

  7. Soniya permalink
    December 4, 2020 10:20 pm

    Great information! Ghee is so healthy . I try using it in my cooking.

    • December 4, 2020 10:26 pm

      Thanks Soniya – would love to know what you use it for in your kitchen.

  8. Tricia Evans permalink
    December 5, 2020 7:03 am

    Great post Sally – it’s unravelled what’s always been a mystery to me.

    • December 9, 2020 4:22 pm

      And to me too Tricia until I dived into research for this post and entered the world of ghee!

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