The purest ghee you never knew of
Only one place in Mumbai sells the original, exquisite Coimbatore butter. That's it.
It was Gokulashtami last Saturday. I was on my way back from Pune and our car was slowed down several times by celebrating crowds of youth forming their joyous human pyramids to break a pot of yoghurt suspended high above, the so-called dahi handi.
Krishna legendarily loved anything made from milk and routinely stole butter, earning the affectionate sobriquet Maakhanchor. So now I'm looking at a calendar drawing of a Radha churning butter out of a pot while a plump blue-skinned baby Krishna waddles nearby, and I'm wondering what the white liquid is: milk or yoghurt?
It's a serious question. Both milk and yoghurt will push up butter when sufficiently agitated. So — what was being churned in the calendar picture? Milk or yoghurt?
Back in days when we used to do as we were told, I remember being instructed to churn yoghurt in a pot, as though every child should know how that was done. My mother would do that once or twice a month, skimming off the snow-white fat from the surface and keeping it fresh in water. Since we owned neither fridge nor blender, she did things the ancient way.
When there was enough white butter, she'd melt it to ghee in a wok. On low heat, the butter would surrender its moisture and grow clear, becoming thin liquid gold. The milk proteins would sink to the bottom of the wok, forming a fudge-like crust of caramelised milk casein that we would relish with sugar later.
The watery buttermilk that remained of the yoghurt after the churning would be spiced up with ginger, chillies, curry leaves and salt and served as a thirst-quencher.
So — how come it's decades since I've seen anyone churning yoghurt to get butter for making ghee?
Homemaker after homemaker I spoke to about making ghee at home had the same answer: they skim off the fat from full-fat milk, and when there is enough, they melt it down to ghee over medium heat in a wok.
Some ferment the milk fat with a spoon of yoghurt, which turns it into cultured yoghurt butter after some hours. That melts down into a cultured ghee. The one mother used to make.
My questions are like flies; once they find me, they keep thrumming around my head. The more people spoke about ghee from milk fat, the more I wanted to find out whatever happened to the good ol' ghee from yoghurt fat. Was there a difference between the two kinds of ghee? Which was more nutritious? Where can you buy it? I've been ferreting out the answers for a few months now.
First, the ghee you buy in shops — Amul, Anik and their ilk — is made from milk fat. Yoghurt doesn't enter the equation. This ghee, laden with milk fats, is tasty but not therapeutic. Expect to gain weight.
However, when milk cream is taught manners with a spoonful of home-made yoghurt, the result is yoghurt cream. This 'cultured cream', melted down into ghee, will fill your house with a subtle, nutty, entirely irresistible aroma, quite unlike milk butter's heavy exhalations.
There are important differences between the two ghees. The cultured ghee is nutty and more buttery. Mixed with hot rice and rolled into balls, it was all our childhoods needed. A touch of sugar and the door to heaven would open.
More interesting, cultured ghee is virtually lactose-free — no more than 0.25% was detected when the ghee was batch-tested in a laboratory. Significantly, the ghee from cultured yoghurt butter is the only one acceptable for therapeutical use as an ingredient in Ayurvedic medicines. Studies are showing that it lowers cholesterol and helps lower weight as well.
All of which made me think of Coimbatore butter, also known as Oothukuli butter, the purest butter in India — at one time, anyway. The butterballs are harvested from nearby Oothukuli, whose cows feed on superior grass and yield legendary milk. Oothukuli's yoghurt cream was cultured in wooden barrels and loaded on to trains for distribution across Tamil Nadu and beyond.
A few butterballs somehow reach Mumbai, I was told.
My sleuthing led to P Ramalingam, a small shop tucked away alongside Matunga's vegetable market that has been selling Coimbatore butter since 1956 — and still does. Walk down from King's Circle towards the market, but carry on straight even as the road curves left. Ask for Ramalingam or Coimbatore butter. You can buy the readymade ghee or the white butter ball in two sizes. Go home and turn it into the best ghee on earth.
Melt it down slowly at home, and enjoy every moment. While the filtered ghee is cooling, do what we used to do. Scrape off the delectable crust at the bottom and eat it with a sprinkling of sugar.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper
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