This is the third installment of The Spice, a monthly series taking an elemental approach to Indian cuisine, a deep-dive into the flavors and ingredients powering the dishes we love.
“Fat carries flavor,” writes Samin Nosrat, author of the wildly popular cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking,” which was adapted into a sumptuous documentary show for Netflix last year. Though Nosrat’s exploration of “Fat” takes her to northern Italy for a primer on olive oil in the TV series, she notes in her book that every culture has its own favorite fats, the ones that give cuisines distinct identities.
In Indian cooking, that’s undoubtedly ghee, the smoky, nutty household staple so delicious you could eat it straight from the jar. For our third installment of The Spice, The Indian Scene’s guide to the staples of Indian cuisine, we decided to look into the history and science of the yummy clarified butter that’s been powering Indian food for centuries.
Think of ghee as butter’s sophisticated cousin: it’s technically a type of clarifiedbutter, made by simmering butter to separate out the milk proteins and whey. With the advent of ketogenic or “keto” diets, which advise replacing carbs with fats, ghee has become something of an American wellness trend. (Yes, Kourtney Kardashian wrote that she has a spoonful of it every morning)
Though ghee’s Western popularity seems fairly recent, a dispatch from Indian writer R.K. Narayan to the New York Times Magazine was extoling the virtues of clarified butter as early as 1955. “The origin of ghee, is no doubt, in butter, but ghee is like a genius born to a dull parent,” Narayan wrote. “If I were asked to mention any single achievement of our country, I’d say it is the discovery of the process of changing butter into ghee.”
Narayan was especially keen on ghee because of the fat’s longer shelf-life — it could be “preserved for months, without any elaborate cold-storing or hermetic sealing.”
It’s also friendly to a number of diets beyond ketogenic diets. Because the separation process of making ghee filters out the casein and lactose milk solids, ghee may be safer for those with lactose intolerance.