Twice a year on ‘Ashtami’, during the auspicious navratri-days, we follow a tradition of ‘kanya-pooja’ at our place (a custom prevalent in most North-Indian homes i know of). A special combination of ‘halwa, kala-chanas and puris’ is prepared and then distributed among young girls or ‘kanjaks’ and partaken as ‘prasad’ by all in the family. The other day as i carefully measured out the quantities of ghee-sugar-suji (the ingredients used for making ‘halwa’), i added an extra dollop of ghee—almost as a homage—in loving memory of the two from whom i imbibed my lessons in providing ‘good nourishment to the family’ ~ my mother and my mother-in-law. Desi-ghee in their kitchens enjoyed an exalted status. It was an essential nutrient of the daily diet, a cooking medium, as well as a ’sattvic-food’ perfect for use on auspicious occasions and for performing religious rituals.
My own relationship with this ubiquitous ingredient, to be found in every self-respecting Indian house-hold, has a more chequered history. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, consuming desi-ghee was an important part of ones daily diet. It was a taste-enhancer that like some magic spice made everything deliciously aromatic and flavourful! Traditional dishes and festival food were always cooked in desi ghee. On a regular basis lentils were tempered with spices made to splutter in hot ghee. A small pot of warmed ghee formed part of the dishes kept on the table for a meal. No one thought twice about smearing their chapatis with generous amounts of it or adding a couple of spoons to the daily protein fix of a bowl of dal. If rice was part of the meal, it was almost mandatory (at least for us children!) to eat some with ghee and ’shakker’(crushed jaggery) or sugar. It was also a necessary part of the Vedic worship at the family altar where a diya or deepam (a ghee lamp) was lit twice everyday. On festivals like ‘janamashtmi’ or ‘mahashivratri’, the idols were bathed with sacred-panchamrit— again a combination of ghee along with mishri, honey, milk, curd and ganga jal. Whenever there was a ‘havan’ at home, oblations of ghee would be poured into the sacred fire as the various gods were invoked for their blessings.
Then came the 80s and 90s. Circumstances changed— one got married, had children and learnt to run ones own household. It was also the time when friends and family from the medical fraternity began to warn you of the health hazards of consuming saturated fats like desi-ghee. When you enter your thirties the cocky-arrogance of youth begins to get tempered a bit, and you realise health too needs to be taken care of. Bombarded as we were by information from all forms of media, one began to pay more attention to what modern-medical-research said and discounted the ancient wisdom of traditions passed down over centuries. Somewhere a consensus formed and ‘ desi-ghee’ became the bad-boy of our nutrition. It was hard to readjust to this new perspective for someone like me who is a traditionalist at heart (and who loved the taste!) but in my defence, i tried! Desi ghee did not vanish from my kitchen shelf (as it did in the case of many i know) but i began to reduce its use. My mother was horrified when i asked her once if the quantity of ghee in halwa could be reduced to half of what the original recipe required! For her and my mother-in-law there were certain dishes in the preparation of which you did not compromise! Well i did reduce it to 3/4ths but the taste would never come out quite the same—a fact my mother-in-law would always point out! With her earthy wisdom, she quite wisely felt that some amount of ghee-fat was needed by our bodies and its use should not be done away with altogether. To a large extent i agreed and some ghee-indulgences (like gorging on rice-ghee-shakkar!!) continued on our meal table!
The advent of the new millennium saw many changes in our country. In the last decade and more, there has been a ‘resurgent-pride’ in the ways of our ancients, propagated to a large extent by many god-men and yoga-gurus (Baba Ramdev deserves a special mention here!). People began to realise that modern medicine can provide cures but a ‘holistic wellness’ needs more and this is where ancient healing systems found favour again. The many benefits of ghee again began to do the rounds in articles and the many virtual world forwards you get. “Ghritena vardhate buddhihi”—proclaimed one i read sometime back. (Translation—ghee promotes intelligence, memory and intellect). And so our ‘desi-ghee’ has staged a quiet come-back! You can see it in the super-market shelves which now proudly display the product from a dozen or so brands. Part of this also has to do with the fact that after more than half a century the ‘cholesterol-heart disease-hypothesis’— that had led to the vanishing of products rich in saturated fats (like our desi-ghee)— has been challenged and shown to be more of a myth publicised by pharma companies wanting to push sales of drugs known as ’statins’ that lower cholesterol levels. Ah! finally vindication, i thought when i read that report and saw a TED talk about it! Saner counsel of course dictates that one take even this new ‘research’ with a pinch of salt since all seem to be powered by some hidden agenda involving someone’s business interest!
Sometimes you need the consummate comic genius of a Dara O Briain to deconstruct some of the nonsense we come to believe in as gospel-medical-truths. In one of his acts, i remember how with mock-comic horror he recounts how he began to wonder if his high cholesterol meant he had butter flowing through his blood vessels?! In my case that would probably translate to desi-ghee!! These days i’m just happy i can once again (without any guilt attached) smear ghee on my chapatis and make halwa using ghee as per the original recipe!