Where Does Ghee Come From?
For many people, the word ‘ghee’ isn’t very common and is sometimes hard to pronounce. It’s not a word that many of us grew up using, and many are just becoming familiar with this food because of recent diets and trends on social media. My hope is that I can shed some light on this amazing product and put some context around it so that it will be easier to understand. Ghee has a rich history and sharing its roots will help it make sense to anyone trying to place it in a larger cultural context.
The term ‘ghee’ has its roots in Indian and South Asian cultures. The product that we know of as ghee originated there and is still widely used not only as a food source, but also in a larger cultural way as an integral part of their religion. Particularly in Indian culture ghee holds a special place in their hearts. Cows are revered in this part of the world and are forbidden in meat production. Their milk is considered to be extremely valuable, not just as a nutrition source, but because the cows themselves are auspicious and represent a connection to their gods.
Many years ago I read about an Indian maxim that made sense to me, “If you kill a cow you have meat for a year, but if you keep the cow alive you can have milk for 10 years.” This completely makes sense if you view it in the context of sustainability and nutrition. India has historically been a poor country making it very hard to nourish and feed a family year in and year out. If you’re going to spend time and effort to feed and take care of a cow, it makes more sense to keep it alive as long as possible in order to get the most out of the time and effort invested in raising the animal.
While they raise a ton of dairy animals, especially in the northern part of India, the lack of refrigeration is a setback to preservation of milk. India is not known for its cheese culture, so there would be a lot of milk that would spoil before it would go bad. This required that they treat and process that milk in a way to encourage longer term storage and use. At some point in history someone very intuitive devised a way of fermenting and cooking down the milk at a low temperature to remove the milk solids and water, leaving the golden rich oil- ghee!
In India, ghee is made from whole milk that is cultured, fermented, and then cooked. Ayurvedic practitioners believe this is the most superior way to make ghee because of the culturing and fermentation process. The down side of this method is that there is a lot of waste- milk is mostly water and milk solids, so if this method was employed you would need a lot of milk and receive very little ghee in return. The other method, that Full Circle Ghee uses, is to make it from already cultured butter. Butter is different from liquid milk and cream since it is mostly fat with a smaller amount of milk solids and water. These properties make butter a superior starting point since you don’t lose as much of the product in the ghee making process. Using a cultured butter will also get you a better flavor in the final product because of the fermentation process.
Since the very first time ghee was made, it was made in a manner that came from human adaptability in extreme environments. It’s not surprising that the properties that we love in ghee (shelf stability, no dairy, and high smoke point) are the same reasons the product was widely produced in India. This goes to show you that a lot of the products that generations before us developed have a place in our diet.
In addition to a food source, ghee is also prominent in Indian religious ceremonies (Hinduism). Ghee is used as an offering to the gods (puja), as an oil for their ceremonial lamps (diya), and also has a revered place in their medicinal system (Ayurveda). The use of ghee in these forms is seen as a cleansing and purifying act that allows a practitioner to get closer to the gods. Outside of Hinduism and India, ghee is most often seen as a food source, however it is especially important to recognize that there is an important cultural significance to this product in its country of origin. Recognizing this will hopefully create a culture of appreciation and respect the product deserves.