Fat facts

CALORIE-RICH Ghee is an essential ingredient in Indian sweets  

Clarified butter, known as ghee in India, is a popular fat in the Indian subcontinent, West Asia and northeast Africa. Ghee-making began in India around 1800 B.C.E., and the word itself comes from the Sanskrit "ghrta". Ghee is more than just a fatty food : it has spiritual significance and occupies a central role in most Hindu religious ceremonies.

Idols are bathed in it, and the fires in weddings, funerals and pujas are fed by it. Ghee is a symbol of creation, fertility, virility and cosmic energy. There is even a hymn in the Rig Veda about it.

Ghee is more popular than plain butter in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa: this is because the removal of water from butter during manufacturing of ghee results in longer shelf life. The simmering of butter that produces ghee also destroys microbes and enzymes.

In India, one heats butter until the ghee turns faintly brown and no clarifying agents are used. In Africa, clarifying agents are used quite often, and they include crushed dates in Mauritania, wheat in the Middle East, cardamom seeds in Ethiopia, and onion and dough in Afghanistan. Ghee is eaten salted in Egypt, Qatar and Afghanistan. Ghee is flavoured with turmeric in Jordan, with honey and date juice in Mauritania, and with rosemary and thyme in Morocco.

Clarified butter was once a common frying fat in tropical countries, but the rise in the use of refined oil has made the butter less popular for everyday use. However, there are many rich dishes and sweets that are made in ghee, and chances are you eat ghee in some form or the other frequently.

A hundred grams clarified butter contains approximately 900 calories. Apart from vitamin A and vitamin K, the only nutrient in ghee is fat. Lots of it. And most of it saturated. Perhaps only uranium and thorium do more harm to the human body than ghee!

In Ayurveda, ghee is a medicine, but there are really no verifiable medicinal attributes to it. The ghee-eating competitions in some weddings are a coded celebration of ghee's alleged ability to enhance virility and sexual potency. But modern science suggests that saturated fat's ability to clog blood vessels is more likely to limit blood flow to vital organs.