My Punjabi mother-in-law, Manjula Kapoor, came to Kolkata from Amritsar, in the early 1980s. She lived in the Entally area, a khatal (buffalo shed) nearby delivered excellent full fat buffalo milk. When the khatal was evicted, there was The Pure Milk Emporium on Ripon Street, nearby that also sold the creamiest paneer, freshly-made mawa and luscious rabri. She cringes her nose at cow milk and scoffs at packaged milk. My mother-in-law’s insistence on buffalo milk amused her Bengali neighbours, but hardly surprised them. After all, Bengalis often attribute the archetypal Punjabi machismo to tall glasses of mosher dudh (buffalo milk), makhon (butter) and lossi (lassi). An even stronger token of her Punjabiness, she says, was that she made her ghee at home (even if ghee is made from scratch in many Bengali homes too).
To make ghee, my mother-in-law adds dahi ka khatta - a spoonful of yogurt to inoculate her pot of malai and leaves it on the dining table overnight. She starts the ghee-making process early in the morning, when our East-facing kitchen is awash with the soft, saffron glow of day break. She whisks the malai for a few minutes until the butter floats up in unctuous lumps and the whey separates. Sometimes she adds cold water to hasten the process. The butter is then placed in a kadhai and allowed to simmer. Once the ghee is ready, and the solid crumbly residue settles at the bottom of the pan, it is strained out and stored in the designated jar.
There are other ways of making ghee too. Satyajit Hange, the co-founder of Two Brothers Organic Farm, explained yet another method of making ghee, where the milk is first boiled and then inoculated with curds and left overnight to make yoghurt. “Ghee is made from the fermented butter churned out of this yoghurt, unlike the usual method of making ghee from malai (cream).” This ghee is extolled in Ayurveda. Some people may add additives like betel leaf, a few cloves or a fragrant turmeric leaf to enhance the aroma of ghee, while others add a modicum of turmeric to give it a sunshine gold hue.
Raval toop which means ghee that has a semolina-like texture, is a prized pantry essential in Maharashtrian kitchen, Saee Koranne Khandekar writes in her book Pangat. At Khandekar’s home, she writes, ghee would be made in an iron kadhai and the flame turned off only when the milk solids turned blacking brown. Others like their ghee ‘fair’ and terminate the process while the milk solids are still white. The residual milk solids, usually caramelised to a toffee brown in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, are put to a delicious use in our home. My mother-in-law mixes a heaped spoon of fennel seeds and sugar with the unctuous crumb and kneads this mixture along with wheat flour into a stiff dough that she rolls out into uneven discs and fries on a griddle to make meethe parathe or sweet parathas.
In fact, kitchens across the country turn out a bevy of treats using the ghee residue - a practice rooted in a no-waste ethos. Food blogger D Srujan, talks about a savoury version of the meetha paratha called panko or bhakhro in Gujarati - freckled with finely chopped onions, green chilies, fresh coriander and cumin seeds, these crusty pancakes are the perfect snack to go with a pot of tea. Mixed with milk powder, the crumbly residue is turned into milk cake, it is added to the dough for savoury crackers or folded into a mix of wheat roasted in ghee, or rice flour, along with a mix of coarsely crushed nuts and made into laddoos. At its simplest, it is mixed with powdered sugar and stored in jars, to munch on from time to time.
Gurgaon-based Abhilasha Jain, who runs the catering business Marwadi Khana, shared how in Marwadi homes like hers the caramelised milk solids would typically be used to make churma of different kinds. “Either we grind up rotis into coarse crumbs and mix it with jaggery and ghee residue or we add it to crushed baati - crusty balls of deep-fried dough - along with jaggery,” she says. On the other hand, Mumbai-based chef-restaurateur Jasleen Marwah’s favourite thing to eat, is unctuous besan ki barfi made by combining besan, the residual mawa from home made ghee, sugar and lashings of ghee.
Growing up, food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra too watched her mother make ghee at home, only it was made of cow milk, and yielded a darker ghee, a rich brownish gold in colour. The gritty residue never went to waste. “We ate it just like that, mixed with powdered sugar or in a bowl of crisp fried rice flakes and grated coconut. Sometimes, my mother would toast some bread in the same utensil in which she made ghee, and then top it up with the caramelised milk solids mixed with sugar, and give it to us as a snack.” she says. Mahapatra’s mother also turned out scrumptious nadus (round confections) with the ghee residue, called ghee chawda in Bengal. But for this recipe the milk solids must caramelise. It must be strained out while it’s still white. The mawa is then combined with a cooked mixture of sugar and freshly grated coconut, flavoured with cardamom powder and rolled into balls.
Mahwish Paikar, the assistant commissioner of revenue, West Bengal Goods and Services Tax (WBGST) and an ardent culinary enthusiast, recommends adding ghee residue to a mix of flour, sugar and coconut scrapings, and kneading it all into a dough. The dough is then cut into small portions, shaped into discs and deep fried. “The result is a cross between khurmi and thekua. It’s delicious,” she says. Alternatively, Paikar also grinds the ghee residue into a smooth powder and adds it to halwas made with chana dal.
“In our home, though, this is too much of an indulgence,” Koranne-Khandekar tells me. Instead, once the ghee is strained out, Khandekar adds about a litre of water to the pot and brings it to a boil. “This loosens the milk solids from the pot thereby making cleaning easier. The water, once reduced to a half and completely infused with the goodness of any ghee traces in the milk solids, is then strained and used to knead roti dough, or to make spiced rice or the likes. I find this a more sensible and broad spectrum method. The residual solids, now bereft of any virtue, are discarded,” she explains.
At home, my mother-in-law stacks her crusty meethey parathe, albeit misshapen, in a round tiffin box that she keeps on the centre table in the middle of the living room. “Ghumte phirte khaya jaayega (These will be eaten while walking around the house),” she says. Only on those days more walking happens around that table.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.