An aroma of nostalgia: on ghee from Rasipuram

Ghee or clarified butter close up in wooden bowl and silver spoon, selective focus

Ghee or clarified butter close up in wooden bowl and silver spoon, selective focus  

Golden yellow and fragrant, ghee from Rasipuram has held many in thrall for decades and continues to do so

Tuesday is a busy day in Rasipuram, the town in Namakkal district that has been known for its distinctive type of ghee (clarified butter) for several decades.

For it is on Tuesday that farmers from nearby villages, like Vadugam, Kailasapalayam, Pattanam, Puthupalayam, Poimankaradu and Attayapatti among others, travel to Rasipuram’s weekly sandhai (market) with their containers of home-churned butter, along with fresh produce and livestock.

In the form of ghee, this butter (stored in water baths rather than refrigerators) becomes valuable for farmers who are looking to do some shopping of their own.

“Most of the farmers raise cash for their sandhai purchases by selling the ghee that we melt for them. They usually bring a kilo or two of butter that they have collected by churning yoghurt at home for a week,” says N Thangavel, a fourth-generation ghee trader in Rasipuram.

With his brother Ardhanari, Thangavel’s family is one of only four such clans in Rasipuram still making ghee in the traditional manner. “In my grandfather’s time, we used to supply at least 20 tins (of 15 kilograms each) of ghee per day. Now, it has come down to around two tins per month,” says Thangavel, who operates from his 128-year-old home in Chinna Kadai Veethi.

Traditional method

Ghee is the fat left after water and milk solids are removed by heating butter, and has long been a staple cooking medium of South Asian and Arab cuisine.

Traditional Rasipuram ghee has a nutty flavour that gives an added depth to dishes. The evergreen vegetation (now getting depleted due to urbanisation) of the nearby Kolli Hills, which serve as grazing grounds for the cattle in Namakkal district, is also thought to be an important contributor to the richness of the milk that farmers use to make their butter.

Melted ghee is first seasoned with a pinch of rock salt to remove the acidity of the leftover buttermilk, and then further tempered with moringa leaves, which is said to act as a preservative.

In its heyday, Rasipuram ghee used to be a staple requirement for mass catering, especially wedding feasts, because of its taste and affordability.

Though commercially packaged ghee has become more popular in recent years, long-time users still say that Rasipuram’s semi-solid ‘gold’ is unmatched in quality.

A reluctant transformation

But artisanal ghee has been forced to modernise as well, says Thangavel. “Earlier, the cattle in our rural belt were fed corn chaff and other natural fodder, which made their milk taste better. But these days, farmers are shifting to cheaper feed. This has affected not just the taste, but also the shelf life of the ghee,” he says.

Traditionally melted Rasipuram ghee, that would once keep for up to a year, now lasts for only three months, says Thangavel.

Butter production itself has undergone a sea change, with many mass producers using fresh cream from raw milk rather than yoghurt.

A kilogram of unsalted butter typically yields 700-825 grams of ghee when melted and is sold for approximately ₹450 per kilogram. The rate is fixed by an association of ghee traders.

“Farmers are usually in a hurry to collect their ghee and go to the market, because they feel that even a slight cooling down will affect its value,” says Sivagamasundari, Thangavel’s wife, who once used to oversee the butter clarification process over six firewood stoves when business was booming.

“Firewood smoke and earthenware give a special flavour to the ghee, but our customers don’t want to wait too long, especially during rainy days, so we have switched to gas stoves and aluminium vessels,” she adds.

For bulk orders, the ghee makers buy their base ingredient from the local vennai mandi (butter mart).

When done in small batches, the entire process of making ghee takes just a few minutes on a medium gas flame. But it requires skill to keep the butter from over-burning. The fried moringa leaves and browned milk solids (called kasadu) are removed with a strainer before the ghee is sold. The leaves and kasadu can be eaten separately with hot rice or sugar.

While ghee made from buffalo milk butter is usually used in temple oil lamps, that made from cow’s milk butter is used to cook and in herbal medicines. “Deepavali and the temple pilgrimage seasons are busy periods for all the four ghee making families in Rasipuram,” says Thangavel.

Mechanised production

Rasi Gold Agmark Ghee is the more commercially viable face of Rasipuram’s ghee industry, that once sustained over 20 family-owned operations at its peak.

Proprietor Nanda Kumar, a mechanical engineer and third-generation member of a ghee-making family, started the semi-mechanised factory in 2002, as an ancillary to a business in agricultural chemicals and equipment. “I wanted a loss-free business, and since we were already making ghee from my grandfather’s time, I thought this would be an ideal choice,” he says.

Today, the business averages a sale of 300-500 kilograms of ghee per day. Rasi Gold’s butter is sourced from local suppliers, and orders per week run to one or two tonnes. “There’s always been a demand for ghee, because we still use it in our diet, folk medicine and religious rituals,” says Nanda Kumar, whose factory uses a machine that can produce 500 kilograms of ghee per cycle.

Once melted, the ghee is filtered through a cloth strainer and stored in 15-kilogram tins in an air-conditioned hall for a day to allow the contents to settle. The cooled-down ghee’s golden yellow colour indicates that it is ready for packing.

“Our most regular customers are the local restaurants and sweet shops. Besides this, we have individual customers throughout the State who order ghee for their personal use,” says Nanda Kumar.

Old is gold

Perhaps the best way to enjoy Rasipuram ghee is to head over to Sri Lakshmi Vilas, at the Old Bus Stand, where the 91-year-old eatery serves its famous nei dosai and Mysore pak, among other traditional South Indian preparations.

While admitting that Rasipuram’s ghee industry may be a spent force, Prakash Subramaniam, the co-owner of the restaurant with his brother Murali, says that the family has preferred to use the local product in all its dishes. “We have got letters of appreciation from poets and scholars about our preparations, like the nei dosai,” says Subramaniam.

Sri Lakshmi Vilas cooks Mysore pak the old way, with a judicious amount of Rasipuram ghee, that makes the sweet crumbly, granular and extremely moreish.

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Printable version | May 24, 2020 10:23:43 AM |

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