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"Indian cuisine and ghee" by Vidya Iyer

Discussion in 'Healthy Living' started by Laxmi, Feb 20, 2006.

  1. Laxmi

    Laxmi Administrator Staff Member Platinum IL'ite

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    During my post-partum months, I had a run-in with a dietician, this side of the Pacific, and she was outlining a list of desirable foods for my diet. Wheat, vegetables, fruits, milk, all received her approval while too much sugar, starch and coffee were given the thumbs down. Me, I was caught in a tug of war between my modern dietician's scientific recommendations and my grandmother's stubborn loyalty to age old tradition. So after zigging and zagging for a while, we came to basics. "Is ghee ok", I asked her. "Gee?", she asked. "Umm, clarified butter", I explained, feeling that perhaps it was time to add another word to the English dictionary. "Butter, yes, butter should be fine, as long as you don't eat too much of it - try to cut down on your calories and increase your intake of vitamins and protein." "Alright" I said, bowing before her superior knowledge. When in America, do as the dietician recommends.

    So here I was, caught between pregnancy best-sellers ( what-to-expect-while-expecting) and pati's(grandmother's) wisdom and my diet was dictated jointly by my grand-mother, lactation consultant and ob-gyn (in darker moments, it almost felt like a conspiracy). My post-partum months were marked by a traditional Indian diet of bare bones basics. Coconut and lentils were out and most of my favorite vegetables like brinjal were struck off the list. My diet was mostly just boiled vegetables and rice and some thin gruel (made mostly of tamarind ). So, if I tell you that those meals were the best I had ever eaten, you can give full credit to the spoonfuls of rich, aromatic ghee added to each serving, like the final flourish of a maestro. Just for me, the newly minted-mom, there was this special, freshly-prepared homemade ghee - for extra strength for the mother as well as for the baby. The culture of ghee begins early in India, in South India one of the first solid foods introduced to an infant is a spoon of ghee mixed with rice and mashed to a creamy consistency. Ghee is a uniquely Indian food - we can claim it with pride as our very own, just like chess, yoga or any other indigenous Indian discovery.

    Really speaking, ghee is a form of butter. Butter, when heated over a medium fire, melts and becomes translucent and experiences several changes in it's properties and this golden liquid, when cooled to room temperature, attains a creamy, gritty consistency to become what we call 'ghee'. One of the facts about ghee is that it does not need to be refrigerated and can be stored at room temperature. Because of it's versatility, ghee has an elevated status in India. During weddings and banquets, the richness of the feast is judged by the generous amounts of ghee served with each item. Some of the most renown sweet shops in India will contain the caption - All sweets made in pure ghee. Think of something as diverse as a steaming plate of rice, sambar and papadams in Chennai as opposed to, say, hot chewy rotis in Rajasthan. You can bet that the rice will be topped off with a generous spoon of ghee and the roti will be soaking wet and dripping in ghee. No Indian pantry can be complete without it and just a little ghee can just turn the plainest fare into a meal fit for a king. Perhaps, nothing can emphasize it's special significance in Indian culture more than the fact that, during poojas and other rituals, it is added to the sacrificial fire as an offering to the Gods.

    remember when I was a child, ghee making was a highly specialized ritual in my home. It began with the milk delivered fresh each morning. Mother would boil the milk and wait for it to cool. Then by night, she would add a spoonful of beaten yogurt to the left over milk and let it ferment overnight. In the morning, a lift of the cover would reveal perfectly formed home-made yogurt, swimming in water, with a thick layer of cream on top. During the leisurely afternoon, mother would beat the curd in circles with a hand-beater, forming a little whirlpool in the center of the vessel. After half an hour's patient beating, a frothy layer of butter would rise from the depths of the vessel, like 'Amrit' rising from the ocean. Timing was everything, said mom, as she imparted the science of the matter to me. I would occasionally help her through this process and skim the butter off the surface and roll it into mounds- often getting the privilege of the first taste!! The butter is placed in a thick-bottomed kadai and melted over a medium fire. Soon, it turns translucent and separates into a brown, gritty layer beneath and a rich, golden aromatic liquid bubbling on top. The precious golden liquid is scooped up and saved in containers. As the liquid cools to room temperature, it harden slightly to a creamier texture to form pure, homemade desi ghee.

    And since the policy in our home was 'waste not, want not', the brown grit at the bottom of the vessel would be mixed with sugar and served as a treat to us eager kids. I always knew when it was 'ghee-making day' at my house, the aroma of ghee would fill the entire home (and the neighbor's too). Today, however, I buy unsalted butter from the local grocery store and melt it down, or if I am really crunched for time, I pick up the ready made ghee from the local Indian store. The culture of ghee is a unifying force in our sub-continent. Be it the South Indian paripu chadam(lentil rice) or the Punjabi paratha, ghee adds a special flavor to pretty much every Indian dish - sweet or savory. According to ancient Ayurveda, a moderate amount of ghee is the best cooking oil. Many important herbal medicines are prepared in ghee made from cow's milk . However, in these modern times of health (and figure) consciousness and prevalent high cholesterol, ghee, along with it's cousins - butter and oil, has often been quoted as an unhealthy food that is high in calories and cholesterol.

    Opinions about the health properties of ghee are mixed in India. Many modern dieticians would recommend cutting down ghee consumption since it is a 100% fat food. Ghee has been vilified because of it's calorie content. Perhaps, psychologically, Indians associate ghee with indulgence and abundance and feel that it should be the first item to be eliminated while moving towards a healthier diet. On the other hand, ancient Ayurveda ascribes a number of health benefits to ghee consumption, such as improved mental functioning, glowing skin and longevity. Ayurvedic journals insist that ghee contains a high percentage of 'good fats' that are essential for our body. Over time, I have developed a healthy respect for our ancestors and their wisdom. Everything in moderation being the motto. I remember my days of childhood as I prepare the mashed rice and ghee for my baby - the cuisine that is only a part of the priceless gift of an enduring culture and heritage that we can pass on to the next generation
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2006

  2. sunkan

    sunkan Gold IL'ite

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    neyi illada undi pazh[old tamil saying]

    how right our elders were....
    but they never anticipated a TV they thought people went more to temples and common places to discuss matters.....
    they never expected the computers to freez the generation to the seats and increase the size invariably to dangerous level
    i must add in our days when there was no TV more communication among friends and people visited more often ...and lata mangeshkar and mohammed rafi's voice called us with love...never seen their face so felt they r our charmers...the news read by lothikarathnam was a grt inspirer....i could go on abt the nostalgic days but not here.......now i never get to talk to my mother is because of this never ending serials.....so dont blame the ghee blame our life style.....yes walking is grt .....but when burglars waiting in corners to attack woman coming out of temple and lonely roads....sickening u cant have any jewellary going out...no no to temple also........regards...sundari kannan
  3. Eljaype

    Eljaype Bronze IL'ite

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    good old ghee..

    Dear Vidya,

    As you say, we miss out on many of the customs our mothers and grand mothers used to have. I have also seen this ghee ritual at home. Like you, we also used to wait for the last just to have that " kasandu" but the way of making it was different. You said that sugar was added at your place.
    For us, amma would sprinkle some drumstick leaves when the ghee was boiling. After straining off the ghee, the golden coloured residue will be mixed with the salt and cooked rice. With the drumstick leaves giving a nice flavour , it used to taste heavenly. She used to have it ready for us when we came back from school as evening tiffin
    Like you when my kids wanted to taste this, I used to get butter and clarified it myself. But these days I could not get time to whisk butter like our mothers did. If we want to, we can do it in a mixie. But I think we do not have the time and patience for it.
    I am very sorry for the delayed reply. I joined only now. When I went through your article I started remniscising and wanted to write. That's all

    Latha :wave

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