The ancient tradition of ghee making isn’t just a tribute to the ingenuity of homemaking but also a lesson in zero wastage.
By Madhulika Dash; Pictures: Avinash Patnaik
How many times you would wash the butter? asked a curious Ananya Kar as she looked upon her granny take the ball out for a third roll in cold water. It had been a childhood ritual for a growing teenager, who had seen many an occasion when the boxes of cream collected would be dunked into a large vat and handchurned to extract the playdough-like butter that would eventually lead to one of the most fragrant things in the kitchen – ghee. Or Ghia, corrects a beaming Ananya, who has recently graduated to be the official butter churner.
But that isn’t the only thing that makes ghee-making at her grandmother’s household special, especially around the time. It is the season when we make the Gua Ghia, she says. It is a clarified butter made from the milk of the cow who has delivered a few months ago. The milk is of the finest quality, full cream and extremely flavourful. In Odisha, adds Avinash Patnaik (Odia food blogger and artist), “it is this variety of ghee that is considered the best among the rest made during the year. And in a lot of ways it is. It is dark brown in colour, very aromatic and adds this inexplicable yet very calming kind of taste to any dish."
In fact, it is the fine quality of the ghee that makes it perfect to cook prasad in. But the making, continues Patnaik, “is one that needs absolute love and loads of patience, especially while preparing the churned butter. The number of times you wash the butter not only helps separate the extra whey but also the distinct smell of the milk. Two vital points that would determine how the aroma, the colour and of course the taste of the ghee.”
Concurs Chef Pawan Bisht (Corporate Chef, One8Commune), who has over the years developed his own technique to understand when the butter is ready to be thrown into a vat for slowly melting into a delicious ghee. “I usually look for appearance when the water looks like water with a few drops of milk added to it. That’s when I know the butter is ready for the next step – of course, what the quality of malai gathered – and the time they have been stored plays a huge role in it.”
The process of ghee making is of course the all familiar slow cooked process where the ball of butter melts into liquid gold. The difference, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), comes in how long the butter cooked once it melts and the cloud of impurities is cleared from the surface. This is around the same time when milk solids settle in the bottom of the pan and starts to caramelise.”
“In fact, is this time that is crucial in deciding not only the colour of the ghee – which often turns one shade darker to what you see in the pan – but also factors the taste of the khurchan or kura as we call it in Odisha and West Bengal. A little longer and things can go from flavoursome to bitter,” says Chef Dewan, who prefers the hand churning more effective than using a blender since it gives you better control on the “butter and hence the ghee.”
However, the beauty of ghee making isn’t limited to the flavoursome, fragrant clarified butter one gets to sample at the end of this time-perfected classic technique that was once a mainstay of many of Charak Samhita’s antidotes and also of Ayurveda, it was its foundation as the zero wastage innovation.
Come to think of it, says Chef Bisht, “nothing during the process of churning the cream into butter and then ghee goes to waste. While the left-over liquid which is rich source of whey with good fat becomes a base for buttermilk or a tangy kadi, the malai khurchan that in itself a dessert.”
Agrees Patnaik, who finds the kura (milk solid residue) as one of the most exciting outcomes of making ghee. “Just scrape the vessel and you have a bowlful of ace goodness that can be added to a dessert, to dal or even tossed with some sugar and rolled into a roti for an instant treat.”
And it isn’t just the taste that makes kura – a highly addictive milk scrape – such a joyous indulgence, it is the wellness too. Kura comes with its share of soluble fat, protein and reworked sugar – which makes it easy to digest and a good choice if you are looking for something with an exciting palate feel and instant energy.
No wonder even the great Chanakya considered the know-how of making ghee as one of the “essential skills of a great queen.” After all, here is a technique that does not create one but three dishes with absolutely no waste.