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On the ghee see saw

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor takes us through the story of ghee this week.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2010 18:27 IST
Sanjeev Kapoor


Well, I am stepping on some slippery ground! I am going to take you through the story of


this week and you have to decide if


really needs to be a part of your healthy eating plan.

The Indian cooking medium
I admit that the flavour of ghee in hot fluffy basmati rice is wonderful. Where would paranthas and halwas and garam garam phulkas be without ghee? In spite of all warnings from experts about ghee being a ‘bad fat’, I continue to use it judiciously in my cooking. It is not just the flavour and the aroma of the ghee, it is the Indianness of this ingredient that makes it so difficult for me to forgo it.

Well, ok, I admit that gone are the days that allowed one to have one or two hot flaky ghee dripping paranthas for breakfast.

But then paranthas made with oil are also history! I will not hesitate in having a parantha made with a little ghee though. Ghee is a healthy fat as it is a natural by-product of milk.

Variations in the world
It is also funny that I am unable to use the words Indian clarified butter for ghee. Because ghee (in Hindi) or gheeo (In Punjabi) or toop (in Marathi) is an all important part of Indian cooking. It would also refresh you to know that ghee is known as samna baladi in Egyptian Arabic and is an importatnt ingredient in not only Egyptian cuisine but also in Ethiopia where niter kibbeh is made and used in much the same way as ghee, but with spices added during the process that result in a distinctive taste.

Moroccans take this one step further, ageing spiced ghee in the ground for months or even years, resulting in a product called smen. In Northeast Brazil, a non-refrigerated butter very similar to ghee, called mantiega-de-garrafa (butter-in-a-bottle), is extremely popular.

Historical role and Ayruvedic backing
Ghee also has an important role to play in Hindu Vedic rituals. Any havan is incomplete without ghee as THE medium for the holy fire. Be it the diya for aarti at a puja, or be it a small diya in our everyday puja, ghee is considered as holy. It also forms part of the prasad panchamrut. We also have Ayurveda backing ghee. It is believed that ghee helps to balance excess stomach acid, and helps to maintain and repair the mucus lining of the stomach.

Another point worth mentioning is that ghee does not burn or smoke easily during cooking. Because ghee has the more stable saturated bonds it is not as likely to form dangerous free radicals when cooking.

Additionally, since all the milk proteins have been removed during the clarifying process, ghee gains further nutritional value because it’s lactose-free, making it a safer alternative for those who are lactose intolerant.

Take the test
I will tell you an interesting test to find out if the ghee you bought is of good quality. Well, you might not want to do it practically but it does make interesting reading so indulge me. Take a bit of ghee and rub it well onto your palms. This way you will find out if the grain of the ghee is hard or soft, whether it melts easily at body temperature, how it releases its aroma while melting. Only if you are satisfied with these tests think of putting the ghee on the tongue.

What gives ghee a bad name
What has confused most is the difference between pure ghee (desi ghee) and synthetic ghee which is made with hydrogenated vegetable oils. This is a mock ghee with the texture being grainier, the aroma being less fragrant and the prices much lower than pure ghee. This vegetable ghee is actually polyunsaturated or monounsaturated partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a trans fat. Trans fats are increasingly linked to chronic health conditions. People with high cholesterol are advised not to consume ghee. A combination of saturated fat and cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease. Few of us do enough physical work to match rich diets as people did in olden times.

So what does ghee do? It is wonderful to smell, gives that incredibly rich mouth feel, and then the taste…however, the nutritional content is the final clincher: rich in antioxidants, it is composed primarily of saturated fat. Consuming large quantities is obviously unhealthy, but because of its rich flavour, it can be used sparingly to full effect, making it suitable for low-fat diets. A good guideline is one tablespoon of ghee as opposed to four tablespoons of any other butter or oil.