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Irish butter may be winning hearts; but the desi 'makhan' is still the king of all

Irish butter was traditionally produced from cultured cream.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Nov 17, 2019, 09.32 AM IST
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Butter may make everything better, according to the French. However, it is Irish butter that rules the world. This year, Kerrygold, one of the world's best known butter brands, became the first Irish billion-euro brand, helped along by its immense popularity not just on retail shelves in the US and Germany, but on Instagram too- where chefs and home bakers are going gaga over its leprechaun gold colour, creamy texture and distinctive nutty flavour.

Never mind the fat image and vegan options like nut butter, butter is still religion in many parts of the world. Foodies may be fanatical today about exactly what they spread on their toast. But even colonial trade shows us how provenance and distinctive taste were prized when it came to an ingredient that connoted homeliness to millions of consumers.

In Cork, Ireland, a museum at the site of the world's first butter exchange documents the history of the global butter trade. A lot of Irish butter started getting exported as the British empire spread its might, including to Calcutta, by the mid-19th century.

The colonists ruling India were obviously keen to savour a taste of home as they buttered their bread during the chhota haazri (breakfast).

It is deeply ironic, though, that butter became an important imported commodity to northern India- the land of milk, makhan and ghee, as the Indo-Gangetic plain has always been, commercially, politically and culturally.

Today, the growing tribe of butter aficionados differentiate between two big categories of gourmet butter- the European style and the American style.

What do Instagrammers or TV chefs mean by European-style butter, which is extolled for its depth of flavour? Essentially, it means cultured butter, with a high fat content of 82% and, therefore, a more complex flavour.

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Irish butter (regarded as the best of European butter) was traditionally produced from cultured cream. In old days, as cream was collected over several days, this happened automatically. These days, cultures are introduced to ferment the cream and some large-scale commercial productions even ferment the butter after it has been made.

This is different from American-style butter, which is made from sweet, fresh cream, and where the fat content is 80%.

The taste is more neutral. Few people, however, talk about India¡¦s butter (and ghee) culture which is distinct from both these. Traditionally, butter in India has been made from dahi- itself a fermented milk product- which gives it a unique flavour and more health benefits associated with fermentation. Though Indian homes make makhan from cultured cream collected over a few days, traditionally butter was made from dahi.

When you see images of Krishna, the butter-stealing child-god, the butter ball in his fist is freshly churned from dahi. The leftover thin, sour whey is buttermilk. In Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the milk that is used to make curd was indirectly heated by placing pails in terracotta pots, into which coal embers or cow dung cakes were placed as fuel. The slow smoke gave the yoghurt a further depth of flavour, besides fermentation from age-old, local cultures.

Village homes traditionally made this kind of fresh butter every few days for their use and we still see glimpses of the tradition in the white dollops topping dal makhni, stuffed paranthas or sarson ka saag in Punjabi dhabas.

A longer lasting product than fresh butter was ghee made from heating the makhan, and then straining it. Every area of northern India has its own unique local ghee- the ones from Gujarat are different in flavour from those in Bengal and so on-thanks to the dissimilar degrees of heat application and different cultures.

As an ingredient, however, ghee is to Indian cooking what butter is to the French- its use is deeply ingrained across communities, regions and religions. In the mid-20th century, it suffered from an image crisis, thanks to the now-debunked research prizing hydrogenated oil substitutes like Dalda. However, that was shortlived, possibly because of deep cultural associations.

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Ghee's use in Vedic sacrifices as a ritualistic ingredient is well documented. In some Indian kitchens, depending on how and at what stage ghee was used, it was separated ritualistically "pure" food ( pucca khana or sanctified foods- fried in ghee) from kachcha khana- food that could not be stored and were deemed "imperfect" for ritualistic feasts.

Food historian KT Achaya notes that kheer was pucca khana because rice was first fried in ghee, whereas a similar milkand-rice pudding called doodh-bhaat was kachcha khana according to ayurveda, since rice was not toasted in ghee, but simply cooked in milk.

Ghee was enthusiastically adopted in Mughal cooking, too. Ain-i-Akbari mentions ghee coming from Rajasthan for royal kitchens. Later, the nawabi cuisine, an embodiment of the Indo-Islamic composite culture of the subcontinent, too makes generous use of ghee, not just in mithai and halwas but even in biryani. The Avadhi biryani gets its subtle taste from local ghee, basmati rice and restrained spicing.

Ghee is seeing a resurgence today as a healthier medium of cooking (obviously within limits) than refined oils and farmer¡¦s markets are full of products made by small producers, who claim their products to be organic, from "A2 milk" and made from traditional "bilona" (slow churning) method. Many of these labels may have more to do with marketing than genuine differentiation from large-scale commercial productions.

However, it is heartening that traditional techniques and provenance are being spotlighted. European- or American-style butter aside, it is time to prize indigenous food products too.

The writer looks at foods and culinary traditions.

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