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Don’t deny yourself the joys of butter and ghee

Each time I go to Kolkata, I bring back some Gobindobhog rice.

Gobindobhog is among the most celebrated rice varieties of Bengal, loved by people who know how to enjoy their rice.


My wife cooks the Gobindobhog at home with lots of ghee, adding the ghee just as the water starts boiling. And sometimes I add a little more ghee myself when she serves the rice. It is so delicious that you really don’t need to add very much more. (Bongs make Khichdi with Gobhindobhog which is also delicious but I like the flavour of the rice without too many spices.)


   Would I enjoy the Gobindobhog without the ghee? Possibly. Do I enjoy it much more with the ghee added? Absolutely: you bet!


   So, it is with butter and other varieties of rice. When I was a child I saw them add butter to rice in Iran and fell in love with the combination of butter and rice. Even now, the best basmati is described as having a buttery aroma. Lots of the hybrid basmati that we get these days (as distinct from the traditional strain) does not have much of the buttery aroma, so, I add a little butter to make the rice come alive.


   The truth is that dairy fat improves nearly everything. Put a little butter on a hot kulcha and suddenly the flavour of the kulcha will soar into another dimension. I find that the best partner for an idli is podi mixed with liquid ghee. (There are competing claims made for coconut oil or gingelly oil but I am a ghee guy.)


   It is not just Indians who recognise the power of dairy fat. The French have founded an entire cuisine on it. Fernand Point, the mentor to the chefs who created nouvelle cuisine, once said “Butter, butter, give me butter, always butter.” And before that, there’s the famous remark often attributed to Auguste Escoffier, the greatest French chef of the 20th Century, “The three great secrets of French cuisine are butter, butter and butter.”


   Even the Italians, who pretend to disdain butter and brag about their olive oil, are actually great dairy fat lovers. In the North, they can’t get enough of it: butter turns up in lots of recipes. And in the South, they use another kind of dairy fat: cheese.


   So, given that dairy fat is the bedrock on which most Indo-European cuisines are based, why do we feel so guilty about eating it? Why do we act as though ghee is bad for us?


   Forgive me if I sound like a member of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch here, but the idea that dairy fat is poison is not an Indian one: it comes to us from the West, from flawed research and from multinationals eager to flog their vegetable oils.


   Ask your grandparents what they used to cook in. Ask them what fat they remember their parents using in the kitchen. In nearly every case the answer will be ghee. Vegetable oil hardly ever got a look in except for deep frying. Some of them may tell you that they switched to Dalda or vanaspati sometimes because they were told it was healthier.


   And thereby hangs a tale. In 1911, Procter & Gamble, the US multinational, which was then essentially a soap and candle-maker, began to use a technique called hydrogenation to turn vegetable oil solid at room temperature. Initially P&G used cottonseed oil and the primary argument in favour of solidified vegetable oil was that it was cheaper than butter or lard.


   By the 1960s, hydrogenated vegetable oil dominated 60 per cent of the US market. In other countries, other companies pushed hydrogenated vegetable oil. In 1937, Lever Brothers (now Unilever) introduced Dalda to India. Its selling point was that it lasted longer while being transported and could remain on the shelves of stores for months without refrigeration (unlike ghee).


 "The demonisation of dairy fat means that we now think it is sophisticated to pour olive oil on pasta but terrible to smear butter on a makki di roti or a kulcha."

   But then a new factor entered the picture.


   So-called scientific research, much of it paid for by the food industry, began to paint dairy fat as the villain. Hydrogenated vegetable oils (like Dalda), we were told, were much healthier. Eat butter and you will get heart disease.


   In fact, the opposite was true.


   We know now that hydrogenated fats (or trans fats) increase the risk of heart disease and many countries ban them. Dalda was, in fact, a health menace; much more dangerous than ghee.


   Even the argument for plain (rather than hydrogenated) vegetable oil has recently faced scientific scrutiny. Most of us (and especially the restaurant and food business) will use vegetable oil for frying because we think that vegetable oils (except perhaps olive oil) stay stable at high temperatures.


   In fact, some research shows that sunflower oil and corn oil are actually unstable at high temperatures. Moreover, at high temperatures, they produce aldehydes which have been implicated in cancer, liver disease, allergies and respiratory problems. If these oils are re-used (as they often are at restaurants), they release even more aldehydes and become even more dangerous.


   There is one more concern about vegetable oil that is still being researched. All oils contain Omega acids. Of those, Omega 3 and 6 are essential for the functioning of our bodies. But too much Omega 6 has been linked to all sorts of developmental issues in children like dyslexia and also with depression in adults.


   Which leaves us with the big question about dairy fat. Okay. So vegetable fat has health risks. But surely, dairy fat causes heart attacks?


   Well, not really, no. The cholesterol orthodoxy is now being rewritten. The French have high cholesterol levels but no corresponding rise in heart disease. Moreover even the US government has withdrawn its injunctions against cholesterol-heavy foods recognising that most cholesterol in the body does not come from the food we eat. Only around 15 percent can be linked to our diet.


   And in 2014, a review of 72 different studies of heart disease conducted by the British Heart Foundation found that there was no real link between heart disease and animal (or dairy) fats.


   The demonisation of dairy fat means that we now think it is sophisticated to pour olive oil on pasta but terrible to smear butter on a makki di roti or a kulcha. In fact, both are fats and how they differ in terms of what they do to your health is still controversial. (As for fat and weight gain, that is also subject of dispute: current research fingers carbohydrates and sugar as the main culprits.)


   So, for God’s sake, do not deny yourself the joys of butter or ghee only on the grounds of some medical advice that changes every week.


   And if you have lactose intolerance, remember that ghee is actually better for you than most milk products.


   Put a little white makhan on that paratha. Enjoy the butter in your butter chicken. Let the dairy taste of Dal Bukhara fill your mouth. Cook your scrambled eggs in butter; they will taste immeasurably better.


   As long as you eat it in moderation, dairy fat will do you no harm. It will only make the oil multinationals a little less profitable.


   And that’s no bad thing.



Posted On: 19 Jan 2023 09:00 AM
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