Home >mint-lounge >features >New Year Ideas | Embrace ‘ghee’

I should first declare an interest. I love ghee. I love eating it, I love cooking with it, I even love the beautiful retro tins it comes in. But most of all I love eating it for its power, perhaps more than any other ingredient in the kitchen, to transform everything it touches.

Ghee came to me relatively late in life, when I arrived in India eight years ago. Ghee, or clarified butter, is used very little in the European kitchen and the first time I became aware of its extraordinary powers was in a cookery class in Delhi. For our first class, the teacher was showing us how to make her version of Chana Pindi, and if I’m honest, I wasn’t paying too much attention. Living in Scotland, I was accustomed to chickpeas being either worthy but dull vegetarian fare, or Indian restaurant dishes adapted and de-spiced to cater to local preferences—neither of which have ever set my tastebuds tingling. As I watched the teacher that night boiling the chickpeas, then adding the spices, I was secretly wishing she would move on to making the deep-fried bhatura.

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Since then, I’ve found that ghee, as well as adding a dash of fairy dust to home cooking, performs similar magic on the humble ingredients in street- food dishes, turning everyday staples into supercharged comfort food. For the past few years I’ve been working on a book about Old Delhi’s street food and ghee is at work in most of my favourite dishes. It glistens in the early morning plates of nahari near the Jama Masjid; it turns korma into a royal feast and has taken a British nursery staple like bread and butter pudding and created Shahi Tukda, a dessert which makes every day feel like Christmas.

I’ve also discovered that ghee has a place in western-style baking. Some of my Saturday Mint Lounge recipes have experimented with ghee, producing the perfect crisp flaky layers of Baklava and deliciously light, crumbly nan khatai-inspired shortbread biscuits.

Unfortunately, ghee, like butter in the West, has had bad press in recent years, blamed for everything from obesity to heart disease. I personally don’t pay much attention to the constantly changing nutritional advice and prefer to take a “moderation in all things" approach. But if you’re not convinced by the life-enhancing hedonism of consuming ghee, perhaps the science will help. Recent research has shown that modest amounts of ghee in our diets pose no threat to our cardiac health. In fact, there is increasing evidence that in small doses, ghee can actually have health benefits.

Ghee has always performed an important role in religious ceremonies in India as well as being used to purify the body in Ayurvedic treatments. It is full of vitamins A, D, E and K, omega 3 and omega 9 essential fatty acids, and is thought to be good for the eyes and aid digestion. It is also now believed that ghee can improve the ratio of high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) to low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol). Recent research at the National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI) in Karnal found that in tests on rats, the consumption of ghee actually inhibited the spread of breast cancer when compared with rats fed on soybean oil.

The researchers at NDRI did warn against overindulgence though, stressing that this could have the opposite effect and pose a risk to cardiac health. Even I am willing to admit that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. There was a moment a few weeks ago when I honestly believed I would never eat another spoonful of ghee. I was testing the recipes for my book on Old Delhi and almost every one contained lashings of the stuff—mutton korma, Amritsari kulcha, chana bhatura, chirota, sooji halwa, puri, jalebis. After days of tasting and testing I felt as if I was drowning in ghee. I think, perhaps, it is better to use ghee in the same way as truffles, as an ingredient which is luxurious, and to be used sparingly.

If I’m honest, I’m not really interested in whether ghee makes my cholesterol go up or down. I think the greatest health benefit of food is whether it makes you feel better. And the occasional dish containing ghee makes me feel very good indeed.

Pamela Timms writes the fortnightly column Piece of Cake.

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