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The purest food on Earth?

With time, the neutral flavour of refined vegetable oil became the norm – and ghee the exception.

In Summary

•For many Indians, however, ghee is historically something more sacred than just a cooking fat.

•Traditionally, Hindus pour ghee into fire at marriages, funerals and other ceremonies as it is believed to be auspicious.

For many Indians, however, ghee is historically something more sacred than just a cooking fat.

"Ghee is the final and purest form of milk – the last extract," said author and food historian Pritha Sen. "It was considered the purest offering to the gods and the medium by which prayers were carried to the heavens."

Its history dates back millennia. "Paeans to ghee are found in the Rig Veda, a collection of ancient hymns and prayers dating back nearly 4,000 years," explained Colleen Taylor Sen, a Chicago-based food historian and author of Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India. "According to legend, Prajapati, lord of the creatures, rubbed his hands together to create the first ghee, which he poured into flames to create his children."

Ghee is also deeply woven into the fabric of Indian culture.

Traditionally, Hindus pour ghee into fire at marriages, funerals and other ceremonies as it is believed to be auspicious.

In Ayurveda, a traditional Indian system of medicine, Ghee is considered a virtual panacea. And its wholesome qualities have been embraced by generations of mothers and grandmothers.

Traditionally, Hindus pour ghee into fire at marriages, funerals and other ceremonies
Traditionally, Hindus pour ghee into fire at marriages, funerals and other ceremonies

For US-based food author Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta, who runs Bong Mom's Cookbook, choosing ghee when it was time to introduce fat and oil to her babies was a no-brainer. "[It's] good fat, to give the young bones and brain nourishment and vitamins," she said.

Her mother took things a step further, insisting on nothing but homemade ghee. "She would make small jars of ghee and send it for her granddaughters with anyone who was flying across the Atlantic," said Datta. "That ghee was pure and tasted like a gift from heaven."

"Ghee is not only a medium to cook and fry food," said Datta. "Before the advent of fancy cereals and oats, every Bengali child was unified by the same breakfast dish on school mornings."

The dish, ghee-alu sheddho-bhaat (ghee-mashed potatoes-rice), she explained, is almost Bengal's unofficial state food.

"In those days, before carbs and fat got a bad rap, mothers felt this dish was the right balance to fortify their children throughout the day."

Gir cows are an Indian-born breed native to the Gir hills and forests of the Kathiawar Peninsula
Gir cows are an Indian-born breed native to the Gir hills and forests of the Kathiawar Peninsula

That "bad rap" – due to claims that saturated fats are bad for heart health – affected ghee, which has up to 50-70% saturated fat. For a few decades, consuming ghee fell out of favour in India. In the 1980s, vegetable oils were heavily promoted by the industry, and as vegetable oil consumption went up, ghee consumption went down.

"The advertising would really shake you up," he said. "The urban and Western exposed population began looking down on traditional oils and using the vegetable oil."

With time, the neutral flavour of refined vegetable oil became the norm – and ghee the exception.

"The whole fat conversation from the 1980s onwards was out to make saturated fats [the villain] – fortunately, we understand the fat and cholesterol space better now," said celebrity chef Ranveer Brar, an author, restaurateur and MasterChef India judge.

While experts still advise against a high-fat diet, some have begun to mellow their stance on the overall risks of saturated fat. And thanks partly to the high fat keto diet craze, ghee's popularity has soared in countries like the US.

Chef Ranveer Brar always has ghee within arm's distance of his stovetop
Chef Ranveer Brar always has ghee within arm's distance of his stovetop
Image: (Credit: Najeeb Azi)

However, the West's newfound interest in ghee may be somewhat misguided. For one thing, much is made of ghee's high smoke point, which passionate advocates extoll for its ability to withstand higher temperatures than butter.

But according to Brar, the objective of cooking with ghee "isn't to get to smoking temperature in the first place; [it's] just to a point of extracting the flavours."

Furthermore, in India, ghee is not consumed in copious amounts for a quick-fix or to help stick to lower carb macros (due to the fat's satiating effect). Instead, the traditional approach to ghee is one of moderation, harmony and grace.

Here, the pale yellow, crumbly fat isn't just blitzed into coffee; it stars as a final touch to dishes, moving slowly as small dollops of it are transformed by heat into a molten gold liquid, settling into every mouthful.

According to chef Ranveer Brar, ghee pairs well with dishes that have pronounced lactic notes like korma
According to chef Ranveer Brar, ghee pairs well with dishes that have pronounced lactic notes like korma

So how is ghee best used? Brar recommends using ghee with lentils or in dishes with pronounced lactic notes, such as yoghourt-based curries, like korma. "Start with a light smear on your soups in winter, on your pita or flatbread. [Then] you can use it for marinating and tempering. [Eventually], it becomes an essential part of the [overall] bouquet that you inhale," Brar said.

Chef Manish Mehrotra, culinary director of Indian Accent restaurants and part of the Old World Hospitality group for the past 22 years, said it was important to him when setting a menu to include recipes paying homage to the unique flavour of ghee. He is confident the world is coming to understand his country's cuisine and recognise its "authentic" tastes. One of Mehrotra's signature dishes is ghee roast mutton boti (savoury chunks of flavourful meat), "The ghee imparts this smoky-sweet flavour. It's one of our best-sellers," he said.

Chef Nikita Rao of Mumbai's Ekaa restaurant believes in celebrating the distinctive nature of each ingredient. "It's ingredient-driven fine-dining," she said. With such concerted focus on the food itself, she explained how the ethos behind using ghee in a recipe is allowing it to assimilate and let other components sing.

Her Morning Glory salad with tamarind dressing, for instance, is topped with homemade creme fraiche and  a tempering of ghee, curry leaves and fiery resham patti chillies. "The tempering is less than 10% of the entire salad, but people absolutely love it, and buffalo ghee complements the entire dish."

Ghee is an ingredient that's integral to Indian cuisine
Ghee is an ingredient that's integral to Indian cuisine

Ultimately, understanding ghee means understanding a collective Indian identity, an approach to food that is cohesive, holistic and balanced – and one where ghee isn't a piecemeal part or overpowering presence.

And when ghee is understood for its true essence, good things are sure to follow.

Brar always has ghee within arm's distance of his stovetop. As he said, "I've grown up with my grandma's chunni [scarf or stole] and the whole house smelling of ghee. When I reach for ghee, I'm searching for more than just a fat. I'm reaching out for my childhood."