How India Fell Back in Love with Ghee
The clarified butter had fallen out of favor with Indian chefs, thanks to a recent culinary trend for imported olive oil. But with new studies revealing ghee’s health benefits, the creamy staple is back on Indian menus. “It gives a lot of power to the...
All photos by the author.
The last time I visited a dairy farm, I was smashed.
It was a friend's 30th birthday and we'd rented a party house next to a working farm in Dorset. At some point around dawn, I wandered down to see the cows.
It wasn't very pleasant. As I stood there in the wet drizzle, clutching my gin and tonic, I was struck by how lifeless the enormous monochrome beasts were. These were milk machines, not cows. God only knows what they thought of me.
Three years and 7,000 kilometres later, and I'm visiting another dairy farm. This time, it's Back2Basics in dusty Haryana, one of North India's driest states. I'm here to see desi ghee being made, India's homegrown "superfood."
Like clarified butter, ghee is made by boiling butter and separating the milk solids from the fat. Except that with ghee, the solids aren't removed but deliberately caramelised at the bottom of the pan to give the butter a distinct flavour.
The "desi" bit is important too: desi is a colloquial, catch-all term applied to pretty much anything from the subcontinent that's local, homemade, or pure.
At the Back2Basics farm, everything is desi. The ghee is produced from the milk of two desi cow breeds: the Gujarati gyr breed and the even rarer Sahiwal breed from Pakistan.
"We prepare it the traditional way, from milk to curd to butter and then finally, to ghee," explains Manav Khanna, who manages the farm. "The maximum nutrient value is retained this way."
Khanna feeds his herd of 80 one-hump cows on a mix of organic green fodder, grain, carrots, porridge, jaggery, and pink salt. Back2Basics is primarily a milk farm but the herd produces enough excess milk to make around 15 kilograms of ghee per month.
This small-scale production is partly why a kilo of the farm's ghee will set you back 3,000 rupees (£30), making it one of the most expensive brands available. Despite the cost, demand for the stuff is growing and Khanna plans to double production in the coming months.
"People are realizing there's more nutritional value in the products we used earlier, like ghee, than what we use now," he says.
India's relationship with ghee is long and complicated. For Hindus, who account for around 80 percent of the population, desi ghee—coming as it does from the holy cow—is considered sacred, and used in both cooking and worship.
Years ago, each household would have had its own cow and made ghee at home. This is still the case in many rural Indian communities, but with the country's rapid urbanization and the wider dissemination of refined oils, including glamorous imported ones like olive oil, ghee has taken a backseat in recent years.
Today, the stuff seems to be back on trend. Major Indian household brands like Amul and Gowardhan are reporting increases of 30 percent, while some small-scale producers have reported sale boosts as high as 400 percent.
Khanna also tells me that a backlash against processed "synthetic foods" could also be fueling the ghee comeback, something a number of recent studies purporting the health benefits of ghee have supported.
One man whose love affair with ghee never faded is Rajiv Kumar Malhotra, executive chef at Old World Hospitality, the company behind renowned Delhi restaurants including Indian Accent, Chor Bizarre, and the members-only Delhi O Delhi, where I meet him on Friday night for a chat.
Or so I thought.
Seven months of living in India has taught me to expect food at pretty much any occasion, but I'm still entirely unprepared for the 14 (yes, 14) dishes that Malhotra has his chefs make for me. His mission (which he passes with flying colours) is to demonstrate the breadth of dishes in which ghee plays the starring role.
Tonight's menu starts with a seemingly humble spinach kebab.
"This is a palak ka kebab," says Malhotra, who comes from the Punjab state in northeastern India, famous for its kebabs. "It's grilled with desi ghee. If you smell it, you will feel it."
The palak is boiled, pureed, and sautéed in ghee.
"You add a little roasted channa powder to bind and it is stuffed with hung curd," he continues. "No spice, only a little salt and white pepper—and a little cardamom powder for flavor. It's a shallow-fry, not a deep-fry."
Whatever it is, it's delicious. The white pepper gives the kebab a slight kick while the ghee leaves a distinctive and comforting aftertaste. Somehow, the spinach tastes unadulterated and sweet, despite it being sautéed in milk fat.
Next comes a hariyali fish tikka and river sole marinated in coriander, mint, and green chili with hung curd. Again the flavours are subtle, and the sweet river fish is fresh and moist—a million miles from the rich, pungent curries normally associated with Punjabi food.
What comes next is a heavenly onslaught of chukundari (beetroot) kebab, malai paneer tikka, dahi ka kebab (made with fried hung yoghurt—amazing), murgh malai tikka, tandoori chicken, chicken curry, tarka daal, gobi matter (cauliflower and peas), and malai paneer. And three desserts.
Each dish cooked with ghee. I practically roll out of the restaurant.
Like Malhotra, Anju Jain is another chef who cooks with ghee. Unlike Malhotra, she is a retired-public-sector-worker-turned-"home chef" who cooks to order through Million Kitchen, a Delhi-based app that connects time-poor professionals with amateur chefs.
"It's come back in fashion, even in today's newspaper, there was an article saying we should eat more ghee," she tells me emphatically when I meet her at her home in South Delhi. "It gives a lot of power to the body—a lot of energy."
Jain is a follower of Jainism and so eats a "pure veg" diet that prohibits meat, fish, and eggs—though she does eat root vegetables, unlike some strict Jains who cut potatoes, onions, roots, and tubers from their diet.
Today she's cooking rice in ghee with peas, cumin, and suji halwa—a type of sweet rice pudding and one of my all-time favorite Indian desserts.
Jain cooks the semolina for the suji halwa in ghee with fruit and nuts, explaining that these can be raisins, cashews, almonds, or dates—whatever you fancy. Her ghee ratio is three to one, so for 100 grams of semolina, she stirs in 33 grams of ghee.
Jain's suji halwa is everything a dessert should be and more: warm, comforting, sweet, and soft with the distinctive aftertaste of ghee that coats your mouth like a silk blanket. She offers me second helpings and I greedily accept.
"Nowadays, they say if you eat a lot of ghee, it will give you lubrication for your body and weight loss is also there," says Jain. "Compared to the oil, you can lose weight. Also, if you are fat and eating ghee."
I take thirds, praying to Kamadhenu that she's right.