If you love Indian food (and who doesn’t?) you will know that it’s often cooked in ghee. For a long time I thought this wasn’t really important and so I substituted butter or coconut oil or olive oil when making curry. The results weren’t bad but they weren’t quite authentic either and I never quite knew why. Perhaps the blend of spices wasn’t quite right or I hadn’t got the technique just so. It may have been those things of course but it was probably because I wasn’t using ghee. I had thought that ghee was just another form of butter and more or less interchangeable with it but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Ghee is actually an ancient health superfood going back thousands of years. Butter was widely used in the cooler parts of Northern India but, in the days before refrigeration, it didn’t do so well in the hotter parts of the South. So the South Indians clarified butter creating ghee – which kept it from spoiling. The practice was so successful that it spread geographically but also beyond culinary uses. In Ayurveda, the healing art of India, ghee is used topically on the skin to treat rashes and burns. It’s also a moisturizer for skin and scalp.
But what ghee does inside the body is what’s really interesting. By simmering butter, it becomes tastier and develops an almost nut-like flavour. Since butter comes from milk, it contains lactose and casein. Many people nowadays are either allergic or intolerant to these substances and so have embraced a dairy free life-style. However the cooking process of ghee removes these allergens but preserves the positive aspects of butter, which are medium and short-chain fatty acids and butyrate. All of these are good for you, particularly butyrate, which in mouse studies has shown promise in reducing insulin resistance (the major cause of Diabetes type 2). So with ghee you can have your butter and eat it too! As an added bonus, the “smoke point “of ghee is much higher than butter which means that you can cook at much higher temperatures and your food will not be spoilt or burnt.
You can buy ghee at many supermarkets but it is easy to make your own. You will need half a kilo of high quality grass-fed butter, a heavy frying pan or skillet, cheesecloth, a strainer, a glass jar that you have sterilised with boiling water, and a little patience. Slowly melt the butter over a low heat and once it begins to splatter, stir it occasionally. This stage takes about half an hour until white foam develops on top (this is the milk proteins). Skim them off and throw them away. You may need to repeat this process a couple of times. You will notice that some of the milk fats fall to the bottom and become golden brown – this causes the nutty flavour of ghee. Don’t allow them to burn but remove the ghee from the stove before this happens and allow it to cool. Line a strainer with several layers of cheesecloth and strain all the solids out. You should have a golden liquid left that will keep for several weeks at room temperature or several months in the fridge.
When you are next in Penang make sure that you check out the cookery classes at the Tropical Spice Garden. Experienced home cooks share their culinary secrets and will soon have you making all sorts of healthy and delicious Asian dishes. And you can find out more about Ayurvedic healing and the spices it uses by visiting the cool aromatic spice terraces of garden itself.