Ghee (and inset, spices ready for tempering to make tadka (Photos: Getty Images; Perzel Patel; additional design by Tina Tiller)
Ghee (and inset, spices ready for tempering to make tadka (Photos: Getty Images; Perzel Patel; additional design by Tina Tiller)

KaiFebruary 12, 2022

Oh ghee, how I love thee

Ghee (and inset, spices ready for tempering to make tadka (Photos: Getty Images; Perzel Patel; additional design by Tina Tiller)
Ghee (and inset, spices ready for tempering to make tadka (Photos: Getty Images; Perzel Patel; additional design by Tina Tiller)

Ghee, the clarified butter known in India as the ‘sacred fat’, is a flavour miracle-worker. Lifelong devotee Perzen Patel explains how to use it. 

My first encounter with ghee was in a dish that my community, the Parsis, call dhandar (dhun-daar), or what I like to call the dal for all seasons and all reasons. There’s not much to it. It’s made by combining tuvar dal (yellow split pigeon pea lentils), turmeric, salt and water and boiling it until it becomes a delicious pot of golden goodness.

But I’m digressing. Because what makes dal magic, and I’m going to go as far as to say what makes any dish magic, is the ghee. And, the handful of ingredients like slightly charred cumin or mustard seeds, crisp thin slices of garlic and crunchy, bitter curry leaves you add to the ghee to make your tadka – we’ll come to that in a minute.

Mum raised me on a steady diet of ghee. It was in my bowl of white rice as a toddler, in the simple vegetable dishes she packed for school lunches and even in all the desserts I loved!

Practically every Indian dish begins or ends with tadka (Photo: Perzen Patel)

So what is ghee? Essentially, it’s clarified butter cooked for ages until the milk solids separate. The long and slow clarifying process removes casein and lactose, making ghee suitable for the dairy-sensitive. 

Making ghee at home is tedious but straightforward. In 90s India, when milk was naturally creamy and packaged fresh cream or unsalted butter wasn’t a thing, the process started a month before you needed the ghee.

Our daily packet of fresh, unpasteurised milk would arrive at 6pm. Granny would empty the bag into her saucepan reserved for milk and boil it. As the milk cooled, the cream would float on the top. She’d scoop the cream off into another container, collecting four to five tablespoons each day. When the container was full, she’d wait for a Sunday afternoon when the home was quiet and get the ghee going.

She’d sit on a chair and do her cross-stitch while watching the stove to make sure the cream boiled without boiling over. The cream would simmer at low heat for two to three hours until a thick, nutty, caramelised aroma filled the home. The white cream would have turned into delicious golden nectar with the milk solids sinking to the bottom of the saucepan. You knew then the ghee was ready to be strained so that all the water could be removed and it become shelf stable.

Because ghee is cooked long and slow, it’s rich in vitamin E, vitamin A and antioxidants. In addition, it may have anti-inflammatory properties and has a very high smoke point. So for my fellow millennials, ghee is the avocado on toast of fats, except that it has been used in Indian cooking for thousands of years.

Many Hindu Indians refer to ghee as the sacred fat because it’s offered on altars and used as food for the gods for centuries. Me? I call it a sacred fat because blooming your spices in ghee compared to other processed oils like sunflower or rapeseed creates a flavour miracle like no other. Think cooking with butter and multiply that by five (I’d say 10, but I have a few French friends who might get offended).

Spices ready to be bloomed in ghee to make tadka (Photos: Perzen Patel)

Blooming spices in ghee – say hello to ghee tadka

The Hindi name for tempering or blooming spices in ghee is tadka. There’s not much Indians will agree on (except to ask you to make it cheaper), but blooming spices in hot ghee is one of them. So ghee tadka is to India what the mother sauce is to France.

You may have heard the term tadka in tadka dal, but tadka is everywhere. Practically every Indian dish begins or ends with tadka.

Indian food writer Krish Ashok explains in his book Masala Lab that the opening “tadka” gives a depth of flavour while the goal of the finishing one is to impart a whiff of flavour. I love how he breaks down the science to share that what you put in your tadka and when is determined by the thickness of the spice’s coating or the amount of moisture it contains.

Mustard seeds, cumin and pepper are relatively burn-proof, so are added first, while fresh spices like garlic, ginger or curry leaves that burn quickly go towards the end. The revelation for me was the Indian grandmother’s tale of heating until the mustard seeds pop is not to gauge whether the ghee is hot enough, but rather to confirm that it’s not overly hot!

When I moved back home from India to New Zealand, I packed my love for tadka with me.

I now add a tadka not just to my Indian food but also in my pastas, lasagne, salad dressings, eggs – the list goes on. Most days, I subconsciously start cutting an onion and heating ghee for tadka before I even know what I’m going to cook!

Recently, I made a spaghetti aglio e olio where I replaced the gentle flavours of olive oil, red pepper flakes and lemon with ghee, garlic, cumin and mustard seeds. The Italians might hate me, but my spaghetti got a whole lot tastier.

Summer is barbecue season, and marinating my snapper in a tadka of ghee, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and broken chilli was the best idea I’ve had all year. I’ve also started incorporating ghee into my savoury baking, and my cheese scones have never tasted better.

Anywhere you could add butter, I suggest you try ghee. Because oh ghee, I love thee.

If this article has you salivating, it pays to know where to find ghee. Some supermarkets stock Gopala or Milkio brand ghee. Indian shops will have more brands and bigger containers for you to choose from. If you want to try making your own, but can’t commit to my grandmother’s days-long method, a shortcut option is to make it from butter like Emma Boyd does here. Alternatively, if you need more tasty shortcuts in your life, you can try my small business’s Dolly Mumma’s Spiced Ghee, which comes infused with all the basic tadka spices ready for you to add everywhere.

Keep going!