Fortunately, we’re easily distracted. So our Great Ghee Hunt halts at the Mylapore vegetable market. Well, it’s more of a road lined with vendors than a market, really. But, under the weak sunlight, the rain-soaked scene is so much more atmospheric than the sterile supermarket vegetable aisle that we’re all — unfortunately — getting used to, despite the profusion of friendly vendors in the city.

South Mada Street, besides quaint buildings clinging on to their past, is lined with all the usual suspects: glossy brinjals, plump tomatoes, fragrant bunches of bright curry leaves. I’m accompanied by a travelling American chef, Scott Marquis, who, after spending a year in Vietnam, plans to head back and open a restaurant there. But before that, he’s exploring India, hunting for unusual flavours and memorable spices. It’s as we’re ambling past the fruit stall, discussing the uniquely Chettinad spices — kalpasi and marathi mokku — that he yells ‘green pepper’ and charges away excitedly. And, that is how we discover the pile of alluringly fragrant pepper berries at Kavita’s stall, contrasting with a blue plastic sheet, like strings of fine emeralds.

While the city’s gourmet stores sell imported green pepper — usually preserved in brine — for the same price as a restaurant lunch, at Mylapore you get a 100 grams for just Rs. 25. As we buy some, Kavitha tells us that it’s available only in November and December, which is when people make it into a pickle with lime and salt. She also suggests grinding it into vathal kozhambu for both heat and fragrance. Scott tells her about making it the Vietnamese way, with fish sauce, soy, basil and chicken, and — to be honest — she looks faintly horrified. But then, fish sauce is difficult to translate accurately. We then amble across to Ganapathy’s Butter and Ghee, a Mylapore landmark that opened in 1942. Many Chennai traditionalists buy their butter and ghee only from here, something most of them have been doing for the last three generations. As the enthusiastic shop boy takes the lid off a comfortingly dented tin to scoop out a creamy pat of white buffalo butter for a customer, G. Sankaran, the owner of the store explains why they stubbornly resist change.

“The butter has been coming from Uthukuli, in Erode district, ever since my father, Ganapathy Pillai, started this business,” he says, adding that they even use the same supplier his father did. Sankaran’s son S. Saravanan adds that the dairy merchant too has been doing the same business since his grandfather’s time, so the flavour doesn’t change. The butter is loaded onto the night train at Erode, and reaches Chennai Central Station early in the morning. From here, a part of it is taken to a house in Mylapore, to be made into ghee in a slow laborious process that takes about three hours, while the rest goes to the shop to be sold as butter. Uthukuli is famous for its contented livestock, both cows and buffaloes, which produce rich butter. While most supermarkets stock the yellow cow ghee, Ganapathy’s is famous for its aromatic pale buffalo ghee. Every morning, the store gets about 30 kilos of butter, of which only one fourth is cow butter. “The flavour of the ghee made from the buffalo is better, and the ghee is thicker since its fat content is little higher,” says Saravanan. According to Ayurvedic doctors, both have their benefits, though cow ghee is supposed to be more nutritious as it has more carotene and vitamins. Buffalo ghee has more protein and calcium, but it also has more fat. However, it can’t be denied that it smells fantastic, which explains why it’s so popular. And, since it’s so powerful, a little goes a long way.

As the caramelly scent of the ghee we bought fills the car, we plan a Vietnamese menu that incorporates our pretty green peppers. There’s nothing as satisfying as Tom Kha soup, pungent with pepper, sipped in time to the rhythm of pounding rain. Ganapathy’s Butter and Ghee is on Chitrakulam West Street. For details, call 24640292 / 98403-59274.

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