Our daughter has just given birth! Our first grandchild. Everyone is OK. We have been summoned to Los Angeles, where she lives, to help out over the first couple of months, which of course we are more than happy to do! It allows us to drool over this little, little being – I had forgotten quite how small they are at birth.
But that’s not what I want to write about here! No, not at all. It’s about something that our daughter fished out of her fridge during one of our almost daily WhatsApp conversations with her during the months of her pregnancy, during which we offered much moral support and little advice (it had been too long since we had had our two children; we couldn’t remember anything of any value).
I should explain that the time difference between Los Angeles and Europe is such that our WhatsApp sessions took place in the evening our time and early morning her time. So as we talked she would often be preparing her breakfast. And fascinating dishes she prepared for herself! A little bit of this, a little bit of that, some leftovers from the previous day’s dinner, a drizzle of various sauces, and on and on, until she had a little mountain of food in front of her. And it always all disappeared! That baby was certainly well nourished.
One time, she pulled out a large glass jar full of some yellowish substance and plopped a large dollop of the stuff on her plate. Upon being asked what it was, she replied “ghee”.
Ghee … I had until that moment only had one run-in with ghee, many, many years ago, when my wife and I were living in Paris for a while. My wife was taking French classes – she felt that she had to brush up her school-level French, although I always thought it was perfectly serviceable. In any event, many of her classmates were recent immigrants trying to make a new life for themselves in France. Among them was a young woman from Ethiopia. One day, she invited us round to her place and offered us what she said was an Ethiopian delicacy: a cup of tea laced with ghee. What it looked like was tea with a scum of melted butter floating on its surface. It was … disgusting, is the only word I can use to describe it. It gave off an ineffably sickening smell. Nevertheless, we both managed to down the liquid but politely declined seconds. I for one swore that I would never, ever touch ghee again. When I told our daughter that I definitely did not like the stuff, she declared herself surprised and said she found it delicious.
This radical difference of opinion intrigued me. Of course, there is no reason why me and my daughter shouldn’t disagree on things, but generally on food we were on the same wavelength. So had I been wrong all these years? I decided I needed to investigate ghee a bit further. This I have done in between bouts of feeding the newborn and changing diapers, and I am now ready to report back – and I had better be quick, before the little one wakes up and wails for the bottle.
First, for those who, like me before writing this post, have only a vague idea about what ghee looks like, here’s a photo of a jar of the stuff. This is actually my daughter’s jar; as readers can see, it is well used.
Ghee proper actually hails from the Indian subcontinent, where people use it extensively in their cuisine. In fact, although I swore many decades ago never to touch the stuff, it is more than probable that I have unknowingly eaten ghee in Indian restaurants, perhaps in a chicken biryani
or brushed onto a naan.
But ghee is just one member of the broader family of clarified butters. Just about everywhere in the world where there is a history of pastoralism, there is a history of butter-making. Before the really quite recent advent of refrigeration, one of the big problems with butter – especially in places like India with a hot climate – was how to stop butter going rancid. Clarifying it is one answer, because clarified butter has very long shelf lives, even in hot climates.
Clarifying butter is actually quite a simple operation – or at least it seems to be from everything that I’ve read online (I will immediately confess to never having done it myself). You heat the butter to evaporate the water it contains – it’s this water that makes butter go rancid; the spoiling bacteria need water to do their nasty work. This heating also separates out the whey which butter contains – it floats to the surface and is skimmed off – as well as the casein in the butter – which settles as solids on the bottom. The remaining liquid is clarified butter, or butterfat. These photos show the various phases of the process.
That’s the basic clarifying operation. Ghee makers go one step further. The butterfat and the casein solids are simmered together for a while. This caramelizes the solids, which then impart a nutty taste to the butterfat. It also gives the clarified butter a darker colour. Only once caramelized are the solids filtered out – and often they are eaten by the ghee makers as a yummy snack. We see the two products in the right-hand photo below.
So that’s ghee.
PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to make ghee herself. She loves messing around in the kitchen. Maybe this could be a joint project while my wife and I are here.
This being India, ghee doesn’t just play a culinary role. It has important religious functions in Hinduism. For instance, in marriages, funerals and other such ceremonies, ghee is poured into sacred fires, a practice considered to be auspicious. This means, of course, that ghee used in this way can only be made with the milk of zebu cows, animals which are sacred in Hinduism.
That’s fine, but zebu cows don’t produce all that much milk, which makes for a rather restricted supply of ghee. Luckily, given India’s huge population and the latter’s huge appetite for the stuff, ghee can also be made from butter made with the milk of water buffaloes.
These animals give a much more plentiful supply of milk, and – cherry on the cake – their milk contains a distinctly higher level of butterfat than does the milk from zebu cows.
PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about her trying ghee made with water buffalo milk the next time (I checked and her current batch is made with cow’s milk). There’s a pretty big population from the Indian subcontinent in Los Angeles, so it’s not impossible that a shop in their neighbourhood imports ghee made with buffalo milk from the Old Country.
Like I said, ghee is but one member of a larger family. The peoples of the Middle East and North Africa also have a great fondness for clarified butter, which they call smen (or sman, or semn, or semneh, or sminn – I have to assume that those transliterating the word into the Roman alphabet have had difficulties capturing its precise pronunciation).
Smen makers go one further than manufacturers of ghee. They will often add herbs during the process, straining them out at the end. This adds further taste notes to the butterfat. Roasted fenugreek seeds are popular, with thyme and oregano also often being added. A lot of salt is often also added, because – again, different from ghee – smen is very often aged, which adds a fermenting step to the process and of course new taste notes. The aging process can sometimes be decades long. The Yemenis certainly make very aged smen, as do the Berbers of North Africa. They bury jars of smen in the ground and leave them there for a good long time – it’s a tradition among the Berbers to bury a jar at the birth of a daughter, then to dig it up when she gets married and use it in the cooking of the bridal feast.
I read that a well-aged smen “has a characteristically strong, rancid, and cheesy taste and smell”. I further read that matured smen tastes very similar to blue cheese. If any of my readers happen to be going to Fez in Morocco, they might be interested to know that there is a square in the old city which is dedicated to the making and selling of smen. Much commentary online notes the “funky smell” of the smen being sold there.
PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to track down a local source of smen, to compare and contrast with ghee. There must be quite a large population of people of Middle Eastern and North African origin in the Los Angeles area, and they surely will have their shops. And if it’s the Real McCoy, the smen should be made of goat’s or sheep’s milk, which could allow comparison with ghee made with cow’s milk.
PROMEMORIA: Check with daughter if she likes blue cheese. I think not, but in case she does, discuss if it’s worth trying to get a very mature smen. Question: Is there a Yemeni community in LA?? (or Berber community???)
Since a chance encounter with clarified butter in an Ethiopian context was the start of my (negative) involvement with this foodstuff, I feel I have to mention what the peoples of the Horn of Africa do in this culinary space. Not only Ethiopians but also Eritreans use clarified butter (called niter kibbeh in Ethiopia and tesmi in Eritrea). Like the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, they add various spices and herbs during the simmering process. These can be spices native to the region, such as Ethiopian sacred basil, koserēt, and Ethiopian cardamon, and/or more universal spices such as our friend fenugreek, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, or even cinnamon and nutmeg. I read that these impart “a distinct, spicy aroma”.
PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about also trying to track down a local source of niter kibbeh or tesmi. I know for sure that there is a significant Ethiopian community in Los Angeles. Our daughter took us once to “Little Ethiopia”, to eat in an Ethiopian restaurant. Not sure about the existence of an Eritrean community.
PROMEMORIA: Check daughter’s spice racks, to see what spices she has, which – if she wants – she could add to her home-made ghee to turn into smen or niter kibbeh-slash-tesmi.
I don’t think that the young Ethiopian woman of yesterdecade had put niter kibbeh in our tea, or even ghee; there was no spicy aroma or nutty flavour to that revolting drink. My sense is that she had just made her own batch of clarified butter, but for reasons known only to herself omitted the herbs. I should also say that despite intensive searches on the Internet, I turned up no mention of Ethiopians putting niter kibbeh in their tea, so I’m wondering what my wife’s co-student was up to. I did, though, find a mention of the Mongolians (another pastoralist society) putting clarified butter in their tea, or süütei tsai in Mongolian, so someone really does do it. That being said, the Mongolians don’t make their süütei tsai the way I make tea. A basic recipe would be one quart of water, one quart of milk, a tablespoon of green tea, and a teaspoon of salt. Black tea can be exchanged for the green tea. Our friend clarified butter can be added. Another common addition is fried millet. I wonder if Anthony Bourdain ever tried this concoction in his culinary wanderings around the globe?
Other pastoralist cultures use clarified butter, for instance the Hausa and Fulanis of West Africa (who, I note in passing, call it manshanu, which means cow’s oil).
But I won’t spend time on these other versions of clarified butter, because the app which my daughter uses to record all feedings and nappy changes tells me that the grandchild will soon wake up for the next feed and I have one more extremely important topic to cover.
This post was kicked off by my daughter and me having diametrically opposite opinions about ghee, which as I say intrigued me. Now that I know what ghee is, I have no excuse to make the final plunge: actually eat something with ghee in it, to check: could I have been wrong all those decades ago?
PROMEMORIA: Talk to my daughter about her preparing a dish with ghee in it, that I can try.
Uh-oh, I hear a wail from down the corridor. Time for the next feed, which my daughter will do, with my wife and I hovering around to help out.