Welcome to the second entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I share a recipe for ghee, which I first tasted after visiting with a group of kids on a construction site in Thane.
It took four weeks of studying in Mumbai for me to find myself face-to-face with a jar of ghee. I’m sure this had a lot to do with eating the majority of my meals in restaurants and my school cafeteria, where I never gave any thought to the fats and oils that cooked my food.
Instead I was busy familiarizing myself with bigger-picture items—like the names of breads, vegetables, spices and sweets. There was paneer, chicken, mutton, and lentils to be concerned with—all served with variations on the aforementioned breads, vegetables, spices and sweets. The possibilities were endless, leaving my brain about as full as my belly—with hardly any room to consider one of the simplest combinations of all: rice and ghee.
In the four weeks leading up to that revelatory dish of rice, I had no idea that a gentle flame and 30 minutes were all it took to transform sweet and creamy butter into a nutty, toasty and more mature version of itself. I also had no idea that this delicious staple was so widely used—both for cooking and for healing.
This all changed one hot June afternoon, thanks to a comforting home-cooked meal with my friends Aarti and Apurva. We were refueling after spending the morning with an unforgettable group of kids at a creche in Thane.
My classmates and I learned early on through our work with Mobile Creches, that the children they were serving were unable to plant their roots for any extended period of time. Being the children of migrant construction workers, it was not uncommon for these kids to be in any given city for a maximum of just a few months.
The families lived in temporary housing on the construction sites where they worked, keeping belongings to a minimum—and the idea of a childhood home as non-existent. It was good for these kids that Mobile Creches worked hard to generate a solid presence on as many sites as they did. But no matter how many creches there were, the issue always remained of having to adjust to new surroundings and new kids so regularly.
My friends and I were touched by this and so we tried to work with kids to make “time capsules” out of plastic water bottles (a widely available resource). The kids would paint the water bottles and use them to collect and transport work, drawings and small objects, where they’d be safe from water and damage.
Since we all lived in different directions, Aarti, Apurva and I planned to meet at a creche in Thane one morning, where we’d work with some of the older kids in building their bottles.
I woke up with a cold that morning (or whatever the 90-degree-weather equivalent would be)—but I was too excited to miss out on meeting these kids. After a long commute (my very first by myself!), I was at the creche with Aarti and Apurva, coloring, painting, and taking photos.
The kids were sincere, energetic and creative. There was Rinky, the sweet and adorable girl with the green dress; Maruti, the cool guy—almost too cool to be painting bottles; and Nagjyoti, the serious and quiet girl. She wore bright pink and had braids in her hair—and she hardly talked at all. Was she sad? Or shy? Or was she just really mature and unamused by Maruti’s antics?
I realized I’d never see her again, which left me feeling sad. Something about her made me want to know if she was going to be okay. I’d never know if she’d have the opportunity to continue her education—and I’d never know if she’d get to live in a house like the red one she drew in crayon, alongside a baby-blue and orange tree.
She gave me that drawing, which I still have, along with a bunch of the others. They’re hanging on the wall in these photos.
Back at Aarti’s, the three of us compiled our photos and debriefed from our adventure. We were in another world now—a world where three young women had stationary homes that we left each day to go to school.
We sat at the table for a lunch of rice, homemade curd (yogurt) and tomato rasam—a light and spicy soup. It warmed me through as the spice soothed my throat. Aarti pulled out a glass jar and began scooping a white, pasty substance over her rice. Apurva did the same.
I followed their lead and used my fingertips to compose a small bite. It was rich and nutty and sublimely delicious. They told me it was ghee. When I asked what that was, Aarti and Apurva described it as “saturated fat”. It was too good to waste my mouth on asking more questions, so I took their word for it and kept on eating.
I would find out later that ghee is made from butter. The butter is heated slowly until its water evaporates and the milk solids separate from the fat. The milk solids toast in the warm fat, rendering a warm golden liquid, called ghee.
The ghee gets strained into a jar where it solidifies as it cools. Since the water and milk solids are no longer there to burn or go rancid, the ghee is completely shelf stable and suitable for frying, baking, garnishing—and even treating burns and ailments.
I can’t say whether my cold was among ghee’s curable ailments, but I definitely felt a lot better after our meal. That night I made my way back to our Hotel in Navi Mumbai, where I ran into my professor and a few people from my group. I told them about the kids and I told them about the ghee—which, even now, are permanently linked in my memory.
Related Stories & Recipes
Remembering India: My First 24 Hours
Remembering India: Pramila’s Paneer Bhurji
Remembering India: Chicken Biryani
Remembering India: Sights, Sounds & Railway Food
Remembering India: Before We Begin
$1 Grilled Cheese Party
Toasty, nutty ghee is made from butter, but has a much higher smoking point due to its preparation. It only takes about 30 minutes of cooking for the water to evaporate, and the milk solids to separate out and toast. Ghee is an essential ingredient in my Chicken Biryani recipe, but its uses are endless and can be found in any great Indian cookbook (see list below). Serve it as-is over rice, or re-melt it for brushing between layers of filo dough, or as a dipping sauce for sweet lobster meat. If you accidentally take it a step too far during cooking (as I have been known to do), call the ghee “brown butter” and enjoy it just the same!
makes about 1 1/2 cups
1 lb unsalted butter
fine mesh strainer
glass jar with lid
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat.
- Cook the butter gently for about 30 minutes, or until it is clear and golden with only the slightest trace of “solids” on top. It will appear white and foamy at first, but the milk solids will eventually descend and brown at the bottom of the pot.
- Use a spoon to clear any floating solids from the surface of the liquid.
- Pour the liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a glass jar. Scrape the toasted solids from the bottom of the pot into a small bowl, and immediately soak the pot in warm, soapy water. The solids are delicious, so hold onto them for a snack!
- Store the ghee in an airtight container in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark cabinet. It will stay fresh for at least a few months, but trust your nose if you notice something awry.
- Smita Chandra’s Cuisines of India (reliable recipes, great source for regional history)
- Neelam Batra’s 1,000 Indian Recipes (reliable recipes, great source for regional history)
- Pushpesh Pant’s India: The Cookbook (less reliable recipes, great source for photos and regional recipes)