The very first solid food my mother fed me as a baby in our southern India household was mashed-up rice mixed with a little ghee. This set the stage for my lifelong love affair with this nutty, rich, golden clarified butter.
In recent years, ghee has become a global phenomenon, trending as a “superfood” and beloved by followers of the popular Keto diet. But its history – real and legendary – is long.
Ghee originated in India, where heat is not conducive to storing butter for long periods. But when butter is clarified – heated until the water evaporates and the milk solids separate – its shelf life extends.
For millennia, ghee has featured in Indian recipes, and even in Hindu mythology, which attributes its origins to the divine. The story goes that Prajapati, lord of the creatures, rubbed his hands together to create the first ghee, which he then poured into flames to create his offspring. As a result, ghee is poured into sacred fires by Hindus to this day, a practice thought to be auspicious for marriages, funerals and other ceremonies.
It was also extensively consumed as part of a balanced diet. Ancient Sanskrit literature describes ghee as fit for the gods. Food cooked in ghee is considered superior; Vedic cooking divided all food into kacha khana (food not cooked in ghee) and pucca khana (food cooked in ghee). Modern Indian cooking no longer differentiates in this way, but the practice is carried on in religious ceremonies and cooking for festivals such as the Hindu festival Navratri.
Ghee has also been venerated through the ages for its medicinal properties. Ayurvedic medicine, prescribes it as a cooling food (it lowers the body’s temperature), as a digestive aid, and even as a salve to soothe burns.
In A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, K.T. Achaya writes that ghee is “strengthening, aids digestion, and acts quite powerfully on the mind, improving the memory and intellect.” That’s not all. Ghee is also high in butyrate, which reduces inflammation in the body, and it is rich in vitamin A. It is perfect for people who are lactose intolerant because hardly any of the lactose or casein remains after clarifying.
Gone are the days when ghee was thought to clog up arteries, and gone are the unhealthy trans fats that tried – and failed – to replace it.
The United States has an amusing history with ghee. In the 1950s, upon discovering that American dairy farmers had more than 260 million pounds (118,000 tonnes) of surplus butter, the government had a novel idea: convert the butter into ghee, and offload it onto the Indian subcontinent, where millions of people adore the stuff.
The government took this prospect so seriously that dairy expert Louis H. Burgwald was dispatched to India, where he dutifully peddled the American ghee and got merchants to sample his wares. The first lesson that he learned was that tastes for ghee varied across the subcontinent. The ghee preferred in the south and the west (made from cow milk) varied vastly from the ghee preferred in the north and the east (made from buffalo milk).
Burgwald was enthusiastic, though, and reported back to his bosses that if regional tastes could be catered to, then the Indian subcontinent was ripe for the picking. Eventually, nothing came of the undertaking.
Ghee is, no doubt, clarified butter, but it is also something more, in the same way that wine is more than the juice of a squeezed grape. Ghee is like a genius born to a dull parent
R.K. Narayan, Indian food writer, The New York Times (1955)
In a 1955 article in The New York Times headlined Ghee is for good, veteran writer R.K. Narayan waxed lyrical about its bountiful delights. “Ghee is, no doubt, clarified butter,” Narayan wrote, “but it is also something more, in the same way that wine is more than the juice of a squeezed grape. Ghee is like a genius born to a dull parent.”
He calls the invention of ghee the subcontinent’s highest achievement.
Today, ghee is widely available, both online and in stores. Without the milk solids of butter, it can be used for frying and other high-heat cooking. Use ghee as you would use any fat: roast vegetables with it, slather it onto meat to baste, fry eggs with it. You can even stir it into your coffee (for that trendy “bulletproof” approach) or your morning porridge (which I love to do).
Refrigerate your ghee if you like, but it’s not a requirement and will keep at room temperature; it will solidify in the fridge but melt at room temperature or when heated.
To make your own, the same way I do at home, here’s how to achieve pure golden, slightly nutty ghee:
Heat 500 grams of unsalted organic butter (preferably made from the milk of grass-fed cows) in a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat without stirring. Be patient. Eventually, the butter will begin to simmer and make a slight crackling sound.
After about 20 minutes, the crackling will stop, and there will be a thin layer of fat on top and heavier solids at the bottom of the pan. Watch the ghee very carefully to make sure that it doesn’t burn. The butter should be a clear golden colour on top, with very few air bubbles on the surface. At this point the ghee is done, and you can toss a handful of fresh curry leaves into it, if you like.
Turn off the heat and allow it to sit for an hour, then strain carefully into a clean, dry, airtight container. The sediment at the bottom can be discarded, but the foam on top is OK.
Store away from light and heat for three months, or refrigerated for up to a year – although in my experience ghee never lasts that long!
Ghee-baked cauliflower (gobi musallam)
Servings: two to four
In this north Indian dish, the cauliflower receives layers of flavour, via pastes, steam and the heat of a hot oven – and it doesn’t take that long to do.
The two pastes can be made a day in advance and refrigerated.
Adapted from a recipe by Padmasree Vardaraj of Chennai, India.
For the cauliflower
1 medium head cauliflower, leaves removed
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 small green chillies, stemmed, seeded if desired and coarsely chopped
1 10-12.5cm piece peeled fresh ginger root, chopped (3 to 4 tbs)
1 tsp chilli powder
½ tsp garam masala (spice blend)
¾ tsp salt
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
For the masala:
1 10cm to 12.5cm piece peeled fresh ginger root, chopped (3 to 4 tbs)
4 tbs coriander seeds
6 whole cloves
8 whole black peppercorns
½ tsp cumin seeds
4r whole cardamom pods
3 tbs whole almonds
A 2.5cm piece cinnamon stick
25g freshly grated coconut (unsweetened)
120g store-bought or home-made ghee, at room temperature, divided
5 garlic cloves, crushed
½ a large onion, chopped
¾ tsp salt
60g plain full-fat yogurt
90g chopped tomatoes
1. Rinse the cauliflower and pat it dry. Fill a pot with water to the depth of about 6cm, then place a steamer basket/insert inside it, making sure the level of water stays below the steamer.
2. Combine the garlic, chillies, ginger, chilli powder and garam masala in a mini food processor, or use a mortar and pestle to create a coarse paste. Add the salt and lemon juice, pulsing or stirring to incorporate.
3. Rub the paste all over the cauliflower, getting some of it between the florets. Place the coated cauliflower in the steamer basket then cover with the lid and steam for three minutes, or until the vegetable is just tender enough to be pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. Remove from the heat.
4. For the masala: combine the ginger, coriander seed, cloves, black peppercorns, cumin, cardamom, almonds, cinnamon and coconut in a dedicated spice grinder or mini food processor then grind to create a coarse paste.
5. Heat half the ghee in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook for about eight minutes, until they have softened. Stir in the masala paste and salt, then the yogurt, adding it one tablespoon at a time and stirring thoroughly to incorporate.
6. Mix in the tomatoes and cook for seven to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they break down. This is your masala paste, which will lose a bit of moisture by the time it’s done – that’s OK. Remove from the heat and transfer the paste to a bowl to cool for a few minutes.
7. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit).
8. Thoroughly coat the cauliflower with half the masala. Place the cauliflower in the skillet. Dot the vegetable with the remaining softened ghee and roast on the top rack for 15 minutes, during which time the masala paste will darken and the cauliflower will be tender throughout. Remove the skillet from the oven and spread the remaining masala paste over the cauliflower. Place it back in the oven and cook for another five minutes.
9. Transfer to a platter, along with any masala paste in the pan. Garnish with the chopped coriander and serve hot, with steamed rice/Indian bread.
These are sweet, delicate cookies, akin to the meltaway kind made with icing sugar.
The biscuits are best enjoyed within a day or two; store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Adapted from a recipe obtained by Padmasree Vardaraj, of Chennai, India.
120g store-bought or home-made ghee, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
125g plain (all-purpose) flour
60g icing sugar
¼ tsp salt
1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
2. Stir together the ghee and vanilla extract in a mixing bowl until well blended, then add the flour, icing sugar and salt, stirring to form a soft dough. Divide into 20 equal portions, rolling each one into a ball and placing it on the baking sheet as you work. Space the balls at least 2.5cm apart.
3. Bake on the middle rack for 10 to 12 minutes, or just until set, showing no signs of browning around the edges. The colour of the biscuits will be pale.
Cool completely on the pan before serving or storing.
Awanthi Vardaraj is an associate editor at Asiaville and lives in Chennai, India.
The Washington Post