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Nothing tastes better than butter

In praise of a delicious (and healthy) natural ingredient that’s easily available

brunch Updated: Dec 02, 2017 22:11 IST
Vir Sanghvi
The rich, creamy taste of butter spread on toast will fill your mouth with a dazzling range of flavours
The rich, creamy taste of butter spread on toast will fill your mouth with a dazzling range of flavours(iStock)

Nearly everything tastes better with butter. Of all the world’s ‘natural’ (that is to say, basic and ancient) ingredients, butter is the best-tasting and the most versatile. Take a good quality butter (and as we shall see, not all butters are created equal), spread it on some warm toast, let it melt so completely that it seeps into each pore of the toast and then take a large bite. The rich, creamy, slightly sour taste will fill your mouth with a dazzling range of flavours.

But you don’t need to eat butter with bread. Melt some butter and pour it over a sweet waffle. Squirt a little lemon on a piece of grilled fish and then ladle on the melted butter. Take a normal dal and add just one knob of butter. Take lightly cooked vegetables – asparagus or broccoli perhaps – and dip them into melted butter. Slice a boiled potato while it is still warm, sprinkle a little salt and pepper on it and then pat a dab of butter. No potato will ever have tasted as good.

Luxury ingredients need butter. Caviar tastes wonderful on a base of butter. White truffles should be served with buttery noodles. But even the simple things of life are elevated to new levels once butter is added. The best scrambled eggs should be scented with the butter they were cooked in. Ordinary white rice is transformed once you add a knob of butter. A thin, anaemic tomato soup gets a steroid boost when you spoon in a little butter.

Butter poured over a sweet waffle makes it divine (Shutterstock)

And that is excluding dishes that are cooked with butter. French cuisine is nothing without butter. As they say, the three great secrets of French cooking are butter, butter and more butter. This is not a joke: the mother sauces that are the basis of classic French cooking (hollandaise, béchamel, etc.) all need butter. The roux that the French use to thicken their gravies is made with butter. All French pastry depends on high quality butter. Skimp on the butter and you ruin the croissant.

Indian food has, traditionally, been less dependent on butter – we use ghee. But that has changed too as refrigeration has made it easy to transport and store butter. Think of the great dishes invented and popularised in the second half of the 20th century: Butter Chicken, Dal Bukhara (or any variation thereof) or Pav Bhaji. All three have only one thing in common: they depend on large quantities of butter for their appeal.

Obviously, there was an ancient butter tradition in India. Otherwise Lord Krishna would not be called makhan chor and butter would not be part of his legend. According to the food historian K.T. Achaya, the Vedic Aryans treated butter as one of the five cow-based components of panchagavya, the supreme purificatory concoction. There were special vessels used to hold the butter and it was common, in households, for the ladies to churn butter regularly. It was this butter – navaneetha – that the young Lord Krishna used to steal from his mother’s churning pot.

The problem with butter is that it does not keep and can spoil easily. So while people who lived in cold climates (say the Tibetans and the Bhutanese) incorporated butter into their cuisine, Indians had problems relying on supplies of butter. (Hence the regular churning of fresh butter.)

Indians love ghee and many Indian dishes and sweets do not taste right unless we use our own ghee (Shutterstock)

Our ancestors got around this by creating ghee from butter. Not only is ghee better for cooking (you can subject it to higher levels of heat), it also tends to keep without spoiling for long periods of time. All over South India, where the weather is rarely cold, ghee was always preferred to butter, being poured onto rice, spread onto breads, and used as a garnish and condiment.

Ghee is clarified butter and while other societies also clarified their butter for cooking, nobody had our skill. Till about the second century, India would export ghee to ancient Rome. So well established was the trade that the Roman literature of the period refers to butyron or Indian ghee, transported in leather bags.

Eventually, the West gave up on ghee, but the phenomenon was more recent than we realise. As late as the 1930s, India exported nearly 2,000 tonnes of ghee every year. Now, Western chefs who need to clarify butter for cooking make their own and the global market for ghee is largely restricted to people of Indian origin.

Indians still love ghee. It is our base fat and many Indian dishes and sweets do not taste right unless we use our own ghee. The chef Manish Mehrotra insists on using Indian ghee whenever he cooks abroad because he believes that Indian food cannot be made without the flavour of our ghee.

In India, however, there is a vague prejudice against both butter and ghee because we have been brought up to believe that they cause heart attacks or are, at the very least, unhealthy. Better to use other fats, we are told.

Melted butter on a piece of grilled fish with some lemon makes for a yummy dish (Shutterstock)

This belief has strange origins. In the 19th century, a French chemist argued that as even starving cows created full-fat milk, the fat must be coming from their tissues. Raw beef fat came from cow’s bodies so therefore it should be possible to extract dairy fat from it. Chemists mixed oil extracted from beef fat with milk and salt and created the first margarine.  The French were too sophisticated to eat this rubbish, so a US conglomerate bought the rights to the process and beef-based margarine became popular in America.

Eventually (after the Second World War) manufacturers started making margarine from vegetable oil not beef. Its chief attraction was that it was much cheaper than butter and thanks to artificial flavours and food colours it could also be make to look like butter.

In India, the same kind of process was used to create vanaspati, a vegetable oil-based cooking fat that took the place of ghee. It original appeal was purely economical: it was a lot cheaper than ghee. But soon margarine and vanaspati would get powerful boosts from medical opinion that treated butter and ghee as health hazards.

In the 1950s, American doctors declared that dairy fat caused heart disease. The evidence for this came from a flawed statistical analysis of fat consumption in seven countries where dairy fat was consumed and rates of heart disease were high. Bizarrely, this analysis left out countries like France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland, where the populations got 30 to 40 per cent of their calories from fat but had half the rate of heart disease of the US.

But while American doctors (and soon enough, Indian doctors) were telling us to switch from dairy fat to margarine (and vanaspati), scientists made a devastating discovery. Trans fat, the fat found in margarine and vanaspati accumulated in tissues all over the body and especially near the heart. This conclusion was not based on manipulated statistics but on actual human biology: margarine and vanaspati caused heart attacks.

Butter chicken is one of the dishes invented and popularised in the second half of the 20th Century (Shutterstock)

Though this research was available by the 1960s, it took two or three decades for the message to go out. Fortunately, Indians have finally given up on vanaspati but you will still find kindly family doctors who issue misguided warnings about the dangers of ghee and butter.

The truth is that butter, if you don’t take it in excess, does very little harm. And as that conclusion has sunk in, worldwide butter sales have gone up to the extent that demand now exceeds supply and for all of the last few months, Europe has coped with high butter prices and shortages.

In India, butter still means Amul, created by a cooperative in Gujarat to break the hold of Polson, once the reigning butter in India. I like Amul and Elaine Khosrova, author of the recent, highly-praised book Butter – A Rich History, rates Amul Ghee as being among the best she has tasted.

Amul is good quality basic butter. It is not particularly special or memorable. To try really good butter you need to go West and sample the artisanal butters of France, Ireland and America. Alternatively, see if you can get hold of some freshly churned butter from a small dairy farm in India. The contrast with commercial butter is striking and the taste will feel fresh and different: as though you have never tasted real butter before.

You will suddenly realise that as wonderful as all butter is, the best butter is even more utterly, butterly delicious. And you can get it from a dairy farm near you!

From HT Brunch, December 3, 2017

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