This is one word which is synonymous with Indian food.
The moment we hear of Indian food there are three things that come to mind: firstly that it is loaded with chillies, secondly that it is oily and thirdly, that it is cooked in ghee.
Having previously written about the importance of chillies in Indian food (What is it. . . Green chilli, red chilli, dry chilli, black pepper, white pepper?) it’s now time to talk about the myth surrounding ghee which will also cover the ‘oily’ aspect too!
So, what is ghee?
Most Indians would know that it is the purest form of a cooking medium and that it is also the purest form of milk. However, most people don’t know ghee is extremely cooling to the human body if taken in the right manner!
And this is where the main problem with ghee lies.
How does one know if one is taking it in the ‘right way’? Well, unfortunately this aspect of Indian food has never been documented and is left to any and every possible interpretation!
Here is my take on the use of ghee.
Having cooked for nearly 30 odd years or so, I have never understood how to use ghee correctly and hence it is never used in my restaurant, full-stop.
We even make our desserts using fresh oil (we use polyunsaturated vegetable oil, except canola, because in NSW the canola crop is genetically modified). For example, at my restaurant we fry our gulab jamoons in fresh oil and believe you me they come out abso-bloo..-lutely light!!
There are some exceptions to this rule, however:
For example, we once catered for an Indian businessman who insisted that the bati in dal bati churma was to be fried in ghee and served only with ghee. Of course we did as he requested and he was very happy with the results, but given a choice I would have stayed as far away as possible from ghee! There is method to this ‘madness’.
In 1988 on my way to Mangalore to learn how to cook on a chullah (a chullah is a kind of burner that is used in Coondapur), I went to a place called Palghat, now known as Palakkat, or the temple city in Kerala.
This is a place renowned for its temples and one of the temples is famous for its pal pradaman, a kind of rice pudding that is made with milk and ghee and edible camphor!!
Once in Palghat I had little time to perform my religious rituals and so I had the head priest help me make the food for a Naivaedyam, or prasad, or an offering, to the gods.
In this I was assisted by at least nine other so-called apprentices who were aspiring to become priests in the temple.
I must tell you that this, mind you, was my first taste of every single dish being cooked in ghee. We had at least five other dishes that were being cooked as well, including a sambhar (a lentil dish), a rasam (a soup), kootu (a pumpkin and lentil dish) boiled rice and a yoghurt dish (aviyal), all of which were to accompany the pal pradaman.
All of this food was to be fed to the regular visitors that numbered anywhere between six and seven thousand souls, just for lunch!!
We started by tempering the cooked lentils in ghee for the sambhar followed by cooking the aviyal and finishing it off with a tempering which comprised mustard seeds and curry leaves in ghee.
Then the vegetables and lentils, called kootu, were tempered, once again using ghee and spices.
Then came the pièce de résistance, the paal pradaman, made with rice flakes, called ada, which are soaked for about 20 minutes and then drained and cooked with milk and ground green cardamom pods. Once cooked, the rice and milk combination is allowed to thicken and edible camphor is added followed by nuts that are fried in, yes, of course, ghee!
I had never seen sooo much ghee being used in a kitchen before. What a revelation!
Back at my hotel in Bangalore the only time we ever used ghee was when we made sweets for special occasions, for everything else it was dalda a.k.a saturated vegetable oil that looked like ghee. And this is where the similarities ended. Daldadid not taste like ghee nor did it behave like ghee, which is supposed to bring out the true flavours. Interestingly, dalda actually ‘camouflaged’ all the flavours and smells, unless you put your nose right into the dish!!
Well, back to Palghat, at the end of the lunch session, which also became the beginning of the dinner session given the thousands of visitors that had to be fed, I asked the head priest if cooking with ghee was the same as cooking with dalda, or saturated vegetable fats, and this is what he replied:
“Son, anyone can cook with dalda, to cook with ghee you should have attained moksha.” [Or nirvana.]
That was a tempered way of saying that it was beyond my understanding to use ghee and hence I should not bother cooking with it as it was very tricky and needed to be understood, which, he might also have been implying, was beyond my scope!
Very encouraging words, indeed, for an aspiring chef!
But then there was another message too. Nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as it first appears and it was all about using ghee properly.
According to the priest, very few people can differentiate good ghee from bad.
Good ghee is grainier to look at and will always remain in a solid state, even at room temperature.
It should never be stored in the refrigerator as this reduces its shelf life and also, by extension, that of the dish.
When melted in a pan, or pot, it must be crystal clear and have a high smoking point. This is very important for Indian food, which is wrongly accused of being oily as I mentioned above.
The oil remains in the dish if the ghee is not brought to a smoking point properly. (To do this part properly takes lots of practice as you must bring the ghee to a smoking point but not allow it to smoke!)
Smoking the oil brings it to the surface and it is called rogan which actually preserves the dish; whereas if it is left in it makes the dish heavy and oily!!
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!
Please try two desserts for yourselves, one of which I’ve mentioned above, gulab jamoon, which are deep-fried cottage cheese dumplings steeped in a warm rose water and saffron syrup. Delicious! Also, paal payasam which is a saffron and cardamom infused rice dessert.