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Rediscovering ghee

Zubin D’Souza

I was rather pleasantly surprised recently when a German guest came up to me and requested for two tablespoons of ghee. The lady proceeded to eat the ghee and relished it in the same manner as I would do with a dessert.

Apparently she was on a health regimen after a recent medical attack. The ghee was helping her get back on her feet.

I wasn’t too surprised!

In Punjab, a very famous local saying goes ‘Je karegheu, nakaremaa, nakarepeu’ which literally translates to mean that the benefits of ghee are more than what your father or mother (and in a broader sense, the entire medical clan put together) would do for you. In India, ghee does have a long and enviable history.

Originally thought to be spawned off the Aryan races who were nomadic herdsmen, ghee has made its way into several sacred Vedic texts and hymns including the famous Mahabharata. It is used as a sacrifice during several Hindu ceremonies and is considered by the Hindus to be one fifth of the product ‘panchamruta’ that gave the gods their immortality. Ghee has held a position of great significance in ayurveda, the ancient Indian natural medical system that is still practiced to this day.

One of my favourite ghee stories comes from the Mahabharata, the ancient poem that spoke of the events that led to the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas. The Kaurava brothers were born in pots of ghee which was an ancient way of stating that they were of noble birth or descent.

Basically ghee is a pure fat, clarified butter which is bereft of the milk solids and water. It has a shelf life that far outlasts that of butter and can be stored in an airtight container for a couple of months without refrigeration. It is a common product which is available in most supermarkets and Indian provision stores across the globe and could be easily prepared at home as well.

The ghee which is traditionally maintained in the scriptures and ancient writings is necessarily composed entirely of cow’s milk. The process is a little elaborate and not one that is easily prepared in one’s home.

Ghee, according to the scriptures has a slightly different approach as opposed to butter. It starts with obtaining raw milk, bringing it to a boil and then keeping it aside till the temperature drops and it is a bit warm (approximately 43oC)and then yoghurt is added to it and it is left to set for approximately twelve hours. The set yoghurt is then churned to create a form of whipped butter and buttermilk as the by-product. The butter is then simmered for sometime till the milk solids start to caramelise creating a nutty and aromatic product. This is then clarified and the milk solids are discarded.

The gourmet versions of ghee, although difficult to procure, are the ones simmered in clay pots over wood fires which give a beautiful smokiness to the product. The fragrance is ethereal, and can really make a difference to a finished product. But since this smoked version is normally made by farmers for their own personal consumption and they are normally violent when they see people try and make off with their precious store, I could mention a pretty contemporary method to obtain ghee from butter.

The microwave method is the easiest. Place a pound or half a kilo of soft unsalted butter in a deep dish and cover it with plastic wrap. A basic setting on medium for five minutes should be enough to ensure that the water has evaporated from the liquid and the fat has separated from the milk solids that rest at the bottom like sludge. Gently spoon off and reserve the clear liquid at the top so as not to disturb the solids at the bottom. This can be stored in an airtight container. The solids are usually discarded although there are some who love them on slices of bread.

The pan method requires a bit of patience and practice. Place a pound (or half a kilo, again) of soft, unsalted butter in a thick-bottomed pan and gently simmer for about ten minutes till the liquid starts to froth. Increase the flame gradually till the liquid bubbles and then reduce to a simmer again. Skim off the froth that rises to the top. When the butter appears clear and you can see flecks of golden solids at the bottom, it is ready to use. Remove off the flame and decant carefully to avoid mixing in the solids.

Versions of ghee exist all over the world and are used in traditional medicine, food and as beauty aids. Ghee is also considered a powerful aphrodisiac and a great aid for virility. Need I say anything more? I am sure it is already at the top of your shopping list!

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