The desi-ghee reminiscences the other day led me down another food-memory-lane ~ a tale of milk and its ‘setting’. Milk is another one of those daily nutrients you just take for granted. After all humans have been known to drink animal milk and use it to make butter, cheese etc since prehistoric times. No one civilisation can lay claim to having discovered it ‘first’ for the simple reason that nobody knows the when and where! It is most likely that different people ‘discovered’ it in different regions of the earth at different times. Our early ancestors would have observed animals suckling and figured out through trial and error that a large animal like a cow can produce milk for human consumption as well. Since those pre-historic times there has been a sea change in the way we source and consume this food product.
In the Vedic traditions of our country every cow is deemed ‘sacred’ for it is considered to be an earthly-embodiment of the divine cow ‘Kamadhenu’. The scriptures say Kamadhenu arose as one of the miraculous-products that emerged from the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk or ‘ksheer-sagar’ by the Devas and the Asuras in their quest to acquire ‘amrit’— the elixir that gave one immortality. ‘Samudra-manthan’ as the episode is known, is a mythological tale well known to most Hindus. Kamadhenu was given to the ‘Saptarishis’ ~ the seven great seers ~ and was ordered by the creator Brahma to supply humans with milk and ghee. In today’s urban landscapes our Kamadhenus are the dozens of milk-booths that supply us milk in poly-packets, tetra-packs or even milk-vending machines. Rewind back some decades and you realise this was not always so. Before the days of the ‘White revolution’ and commercial processing and selling of milk, milk was mostly delivered by a milkman who owned a couple of cows/buffaloes and who would have hand-milked the mammal an hour or so earlier. Pasteurisation and other modern-day processing methods were unknown and so the milk was boiled (even kept on a rolling boil for some minutes) to get rid of any pathogens. Both my mother and mother-in-law were paranoid about this drill and they passed a bit of that paranoia to me as well! They say old habits die hard, and with me this is one of them—i know there is probably no need to boil the milk modern dairies provide, but the process is so ingrained into the milk-drinking routine that i can never get myself to using it straight from the pack!! There is also an interesting superstition attached to this routine. In North India it is considered inauspicious if the milk boils over and runs down the vessel. A vexing issue for me since it happened on a regular basis if i stood to watch over the milk while it was boiling. (One solution i found was to hand over this task to someone else or the house-help!) That was till a South Indian friend told me that in their part of the country it was an auspicious omen that symbolised abundance in the house—so i promptly did an about turn and embraced that belief!!
Since my parents were pure vegetarians, milk and all its by-products were an important part of our daily diet. Till our mother was in charge of our nutrition, we had to have two glasses of milk daily—one morning and one in the evening. (Guess my children and many others could say the same!! Why is that-glass-of-milk the first casualty of our taking charge of our own food, i wonder??!!) For many years i adhered to this practice till my husband discovered about ‘lactose intolerance’! Milk-drinking went out and eating-more-dahi became the new regimen. And that brings me to another regular occurrence in our traditional Indian homes—the nothing-really-to-it kind of task of “setting” the milk at night for the bowl of dahi to be consumed with the meals next day.
And before we move onto that subject tomorrow, just adding a small note below about all these Indian names.
(Postscript~ This is a bit of a digression, but i wanted to share that the other day while looking for an equivalent word for desi-ghee in English i stumbled upon some interesting facts. Clarified butter was the word that i knew was used to refer to ghee; but my feed-me-some-more-knowledge-hunger led me to discover that the two differ slightly in their method of preparation. For both the butter is melted on low heat, the water content is evaporated, the milk solids allowed to settle at the bottom and the fat poured off. Clarified butter is ready once the water evaporates, but for ghee the melted butter is simmered some more till the milk solids caramelise. This is what gives ghee its nutty taste and the aroma we all so love! So i decided to call it just that ~ ghee. That is the problem with taking certain foodstuffs out of their cultural context and trying to search for equivalent words for them in a foreign language. Take ‘dahi’ and ‘malai’ for instance ~ the first is your ‘curd or yoghurt’, the second is ‘cream’. In an article by a renowned foodie i learnt that dahi is technically yoghurt and that curd refers to the solids in it, not to the dahi itself. To me yoghurt is what is available in small plastic containers in supermarkets and dahi is what one makes at home!! Similarly what we fondly call ‘malai’ is homemade and refers to the thick coating of fat and proteins that appears on the surface of milk while it cools after being boiled. The velvety smooth ‘cream’ you get from the market for making desserts is a by product of the process of the homogenisation that happens when milk is processed commercially before it is packaged and sold.And so i stick to using these more familiar, more evocative names!)