The Untold Story of Indian Ghee

The Untold Story of Indian Ghee

Ghee is the cornerstone of several cuisines in India. However, little is known about its regional variants. Aditya Raghavan explores the nuance and terroir of ghee.

The most interesting ghee I have tasted comes from the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. At 4,300 metres altitude, Demul in Spiti is one of the highest villages in the world. On the arid, leeward side of the Himalayas, water is a scarce resource and most of the foliage is reduced to shrubs and small trees. People depend entirely on domesticated animals for their survival. Dung from churrus — a local breed of cow-yak — is painstakingly collected by villagers every day of summer, despite the laborious task of walking up and down the terrace fields, as it is a necessary energy source to keep homes warm in winter. Butter and ghee form a most crucial food source.

Milk from churrus is collected everyday and poured into a large wooden contraption with a capacity of about fifty litres, to be churned. Roughly once in ten days, the continuously fermenting milk is churned into butter. This butter has all sorts of complexity to it: from the lactic notes of buttermilk, to the more piquant notes of cheese (imagine the aroma of Parmigiano Reggiano), and even the elusive flavours of 2-Heptanone — a flavour compound produced in blue cheese. The ghee made from this butter has a delicious punch, inspiring my imagination to ask questions like, “Would this not pair perfectly with a hot mooli parantha?”

Milk is churned into butter and then converted to ghee

I have a dream where, in kitchens across the country, people dedicate a cabinet to coveted collections of ghee. This idea is not revolutionary. Most food lovers today have replaced the Dabur honey of their childhood with a collection of diverse, small-batch honeys from around the country. Sometimes they reach for a Malabar pepper honey to sweeten their chai, and other times a drizzle of delicate wild forest honey that pairs splendidly with a morning fruit bowl.

Just as bees are attracted to the first blossoms of the season, bovines follow fresh grass. The concept is simple — it takes roughly 30 kg of milk to produce 1 kg of ghee. The flavours of the terroir — the wild shrubs, the grasses and flowers — that animals have fertilized and grazed upon, are heightened in this compression, giving the ghee its particular flavour. But let us go back to the beginning.

There are two types of traditional ghee. One, as mentioned above, where yogurt is churned to make butter, and subsequently converted to ghee. The other comes from clotted cream, or malai, skimmed from the top of boiled milk, which is then churned into butter and heated to produce ghee. The latter is a common practice in several Indian households and as I remember, is how my mother and grandmother made ghee. 

Both these techniques can be traced back to our pastoral ancestors. They learned that by churning yogurt in a to-and-fro motion for a long enough duration, at the right temperature, they could extract butter. This trickled down to tropical plains where a hotter climate necessitated the boiling of milk to keep it from spoiling, which eventually led to the daily collection of readily available clotted cream.

Butter made by churning milk

Meanwhile in Europe, fresh cream was being separated from raw milk using a crankshaft system that spun milk at high speeds, separating the heavier skimmed-milk and allowing the lighter cream to drip down. Old-fashioned European churners didn’t subscribe to the aggressive to-and-fro churning principle; instead they adopted the gentle and continuous aeration of cream, which, as any baker will tell you, is how over-whisked fresh cream becomes butter.

The key difference here in India is that we have always struggled to separate fat (or cream) from milk, whether by the laborious churning of yogurt or by tedious collection of small portions of malai. But this struggle has inadvertently led to a far superior flavour. In both cases, fermentation plays a necessary role in developing and nurturing these flavours of terroir, and releasing micronutrients that add depth and character to ghee. 

Malai ghee has a gently fermented dairy flavour, resting on the sturdy notes of toffee, a result of the caramelisation of residual sugars in the malai. This nutty, brown-butter flavour is a joy to savour in tadkas. With yogurt ghee, the sugar content in butter is very low, and good yogurt ghee does not have these notes of caramelised sugar. With more sophisticated flavours brought about by secondary fermentation, yogurt ghee is a revelation yet to find its place in the spotlight.

Today’s mass-produced store-bought ghee is another example of industrialised food. In order to control costs and minimize losses, large-scale dairies have adopted the European separation of fresh cream from milk, and now make ghee by directly heating this sugar-rich cream. With standardisation comes the predictability of flavour: a one-dimensional product that has been stripped bare of nuance. The fermented dairy flavour is notably absent, but customers still enjoy it for the nutty notes of caramel that have come to be associated with ghar ka ghee. 

Various varieties of ghee from around India

Honey, two decades ago, was a single product under an umbrella term, used whenever the recipe called for ‘honey’. So also today, people use store-bought ghee to meet their everyday culinary requirements, whether to make ghee dosa, or for tadka, or even to recreate their grandmother’s mutton curry. As one of the panch-amruts from the Vedas, as holy food coveted and revered in a sacred corner of the kitchen, not unlike honey, perhaps we need to demand a higher standard?

Given India’s diverse microclimates and dairy breeds, it is anyone’s guess as to how many varieties of ghee we produce. Imagine for a moment, the flavour of ghee from a single cow fed a very specific diet over six months. Or the experience of ghee tasting across the villages of Sikkim, as one would taste butter in the French Alps. Perhaps someday I may even be able to confit mutton in goat ghee.

Aditya Raghavan is a physicist-turned-cheese maker who works as a consultant with dairy businesses across the country.

Sneha is an independent graphic designer and illustrator. She loves incorporating dreamy colour palettes with a touch of whimsy. See more of her work here