Most of the recipes in my blog have been inspired by my culinary enthusiast (not to mention, handsome and charming) son. Ever since he left home and started living on his own, I could expect a call from him any time of the day or night, trans-atlantic or trans-pacific, asking for directions to prepare a certain dish. He would have bought the ingredients and would be wondering how to start or at times he would have started the process and wouldn’t know how to go on.
The other day he called me and asked me how to melt butter to get ghee. As he would never eat ghee or butter along with his rice or rotis or bread since his childhood, I couldn’t hide my surprise until he told me that he wanted to prepare Rava kesari for the Thanksgiving lunch they were planning at work.
Having grown up in a family where we had cows and buffaloes and hence lots of milk and butter, I had never imagined anyone would need a lesson on making ghee from butter until I moved outside our village. In our house we had big vengalapanais in which a huge quantity of milk was boiled and set to form curd. We had separate vengalapanais for cows’ and buffaloes’ milk. We took turns in churning the curds early in the mornings and were rewarded by a big dollop of warm and fresh butter at the end of the chore. Nobody needed any cardio exercises on a treadmill. There was a big pole fixed on the corner of the kitchen to which two metallic chains with rings were attached. The vengalapanai containing the curds was placed on a coaster(kalavadai) made of coir. The mathu(churning wheel)was placed inside the curds and the metallic rings were slipped on to the mathu. There was another cord made of cotton thread which was wound around the mathu, between the rings, with long ends trailing at both ends, which was pulled from both ends. This is the best cardio exercise one could get. You do this for 5 minutes, presto, your warm fresh butter floats on top of the fresh butter milk. The cows milk butter was creamy yellow and the buffalo butter was white.
This butter was made into ghee every other day as there were no refrigerators to keep the butter fresh. The butter was washed in plenty of water to remove all the butter milk and put in a big kadai and heated, stirring constantly, until you got a fragrant golden yellow liquid ghee. The ghee was strained and stored in clay jars to retain its freshness. It set to a sand like texture. The residue of ghee is very tasty and we children vied with each other to get our idlis or rice tossed in the fresh ghee residue.
The trick of keeping the ghee fragrant and fresh for long time is in heating the butter to the right "doneness." As the butter is being melted, the water content in the butter evaporates making a hissing noise. Once the water content is fully evaporated, the liquid turns to a golden color with a good aroma. This is the right time to switch off the stove. If one is using a thick pan to melt the butter, it is better to pour the ghee into another container immediately, as the ghee may turn blacker because of the heat retained by the pan.
There is an interesting story told about the readiness of ghee. A new daughter in-law was asked by her mother-in-law to prepare ghee. The daughter-in-law did not know how to melt butter and she asked her neighbour how to test the readiness of the ghee. The neighbour told her, "Orosai adangina vanaliye erakku" (Remove the pan from the stove when the noise stops). The daughter in-law took it as Oorosai (the noise in the street) and kept the pan on the stove and sat the front door of the house, waiting for the noise on the street to subside. The rest of the story can only be well imagined. This was the story told to young girls to be careful when preparing ghee. Delay a minute and the ghee will lose its color and aroma and grainy texture.
Many theories are propounded by the new age culinary gurus to retain the freshness of the ghee. Some people say, add a pinch of turmeric powder, some say add a few curry leaves, yet others say add a few thulasi leaves. I would say, heat the ghee to the right doneness and store. It will remain fresh for ever.
If the ghee is not heated to the right doneness, it goes stale very fast and gives a very bad odour. When we were children, there were always some impromptu lunch sponsored by neighbours on occasions like a child's birthday or a "kappu ceremony" or a "thottil ceremony." It was a practice to serve ghee after rice was served and I was often surprised that the ghee smelt rotten. I used to come home and tell my Echiyamma about it and she would say, they have not heated the butter properly. "But they bought the ghee from our house this morning," I would say. What was the mystery of the fragrant ghee turning to a foul smelling ghee by the time they served, I never understood.