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A Foodie's Guide to the History of Ghee

Posted by Christina Boyes on

Named for its bright yellow color, ghee is more than just butter. This clarified cooking fat was most likely used to fuel lamps and heal skin ailments, but over time found its way to the plate – and that’s a very good thing. Ghee is, according to Hinduism, a true food of the gods. It’s loaded with health benefits, dripping with culinary flavor, and the perfect fat for diabetics. Curious how it came to be and why it’s so revered? Keep reading. I did a little research to satisfy my own curiosity, and thought you’d enjoy the results.

The History of Ghee

Butter – A Universal Food?

Early humans ate what they could, where they could find it. Most of our ancestors started out as hunter gatherers, and passed through a pastoralist phase before finally settling down and practicing agriculture. The pastoralist phase was more important than you might realize. It diversified our dairy consumption to a great extent – foods like yogurt, cheese, and butter came out of this period.

Butter production most likely began by accident. A shepherd, with a skin bag of goat, sheep, yak, cow, camel, or other milk, spent a little too much time letting that bag bang around in the heat before opening it for a drink. When the time came for a drink, the contents of the bag weren’t milk anymore… they were butter.

Around the world, butter has hundreds of names, and is enjoyed in the majority of cultures. It’s a nearly universal food.

Enter the Ghee

The Asian subcontinent has a long-standing love affair with butter. In some parts of the region, the average life expectancy stretches well above 100 years of age, and the people are quick to credit the butter they use. In the northeast corner of the Indian subcontinent, sometime near 1800-2000 BCE, the need to carry butter for distances – probably for trade – led to the creation of shelf-stable butter. Ghee.

Ghee’s creation took place in what is now the northeast corner of India, but its popularity bloomed somewhere else. Somewhere that milk would go rancid too quickly to use, and regular butter would be a useless puddle by midday. Southern India. The impact of this healthy and shelf-stable fat was so important that it soon found its way to a place you probably wouldn’t expect.

This saturated fat gained a religious following.

Sacred Fat

In ancient India’s Dharmasutra law verses, a code that included religious and political requirements, ghee is mentioned as a key part of religious rituals. It also appears in Chapter 9 of the Bhagavad Gita, and in at least one of  the hymns of Rg Veda from approximately 1500BCE.

Ghee was important – and not just as food.

Prajapati, the lord of creatures in Hindu mythology, created ghee when he rubbed his hands together to churn it. He poured the ghee into fire in order to create his offspring. As a result, many Hindus still re-enact this gesture as a means of recreating creation.

The religious impact of ghee in India stretches beyond the spiritual and mythological references and into practice. The caste system of India is strict and Hindu foods are divided by class. No one can eat food that someone of a lower caste prepares unless it is a “superior” food. One way to make even the most “inferior” foods into superior ones is to cook them in ghee. As a result, cooking in ghee is a great way for Hindu restaurant owners to ensure that clientele of all castes eat at their establishments. And in Ayurvedic medicine, ghee is used in special preparations with herbs for healing. 

Ghee isn’t cheap, however. And it is wildly popular for another reason. At Hindu weddings, men often have an “eating contest.” They eat as much ghee as possible as part of a fertility ritual of sorts. Eating more than a kilo isn’t considered gross. It’s considered a good thing.

As healthy as ghee is, I’m sure Indian cardiologists must love wedding season…

Modern Alternative Medicine

Eating a few kilos of ghee would probably land you in the emergency room, but there are many ways that ghee can actually help to keep you healthy. One of the healthiest of saturated fats, ghee offers many potential health benefits. From the days of its initial discovery, butter has been used as a topical ointment, but ghee’s benefits are better than butter’s.

The majority of clarified butters in the world remove milk fats and solids in the early stages of production. Ghee leaves them in, adding a nutty flavor to the final product, and there’s one extra benefit to ghee’s production method. The lactose and casein content is next to nothing, since these components break down during the slow boiling that creates ghee. That makes it a great substitute for people with lactose or casein sensitivities.

Like all fats, if you overdo it, your health will suffer. For a healthy diet, it’s a great pick, though. It has a higher smoke point than most cooking fats, making it a little healthier from the get-go. That’s not all there is to ghee, however. Rich in butyrate, it eases digestion and reduces inflammation in the body. One tablespoon is equal to 15% of your daily recommended intake of Vitamin A, and the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in ghee is thought to be a potent cancer fighter. There’s a chance that CLA also helps insulin resistance, making this a smart choice for diabetics and prediabetics, too.

Did I mention that it’s a potent moisturizer, helps heal burns, and is great for dry hair as a conditioning mask? Just remember, the majority of the benefits offered by ghee disappear if it’s not made with milk from grass-fed cows.

Butter is an ancient food, and ghee is nearly as old. In many parts of the world where it is actively used in culinary and medicinal preparations, this clarified butter goes by the traditional Indian name. Its health benefits are quickly coming to light, and as we experiment with more and more ghee recipes, modern alternative and natural medicine is also reconnecting with this super fat. Go on. Get your ghee on!

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