For Steve Hodges, one of Australia’s best seafood chefs and co-author of Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook, when it comes to cooking fish, it’s “gotta be ghee”.
“I don’t like cooking fish in oil,” he tells Maeve O’Meara on Food Safari Water. “I find it greasy. Ghee has a really high burning point – to me, it tastes better [and] does a much better job on the crisping of the skin.”
At this point, many readers will be gasping at the idea of using ghee in cooking anything, let alone fish. For a long time, ghee has been on the ‘do not touch’ list here in Australia. It’s been caught under the shroud of the demonisation of dairy, which is only just starting to lift.
5000 years of experience
In contrast, for centuries desi ghee, or ‘real clarified butter’, has been considered a healthy fat in Ayurveda, the Indian health practice thought to be more than 5000 years old. The Vedas refer to ghee as 'first and the most essential of all foods' and it is essential in the religious rituals of both Hinduism and Sikhism. Ghee is also indispensable across Bengali, Gujarati, Rajasthan, and Punjabi cooking.
For a long time, ghee has been on the ‘do not touch’ list here in Australia.
Ghee originated in India in ancient times, where the hot climate no doubt necessitated a more shelf-stable alternative to butter. Butter is clarified and then cooked for longer to arrive at a stable, intensely-flavoured product. In the process, the milk solids are strained out, making ghee lactose- and casein-free, and ensuring that it stays stable in the pantry, even on sweltering hot days. Ghee also has a high-smoke point, so it’s an excellent choice for deep-frying and stir-frying.
With all this going for it, why has ghee been out in the cold for so long?
Good fat / bad fat
In recent years, there has slowly been a shift in our understanding of what makes a fat ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but prior to this ghee was simply classed as a saturated-fat, best avoided. The science over-rode thousands of years of food history and even in India there was a push to stop using so much ghee.
Desi ghee is considered a healthy fat in Ayurveda, the Indian health practice thought to be more than 5000 years old.
It’s important to note that there are two kinds of ghee: cow’s milk (or ‘pure’) ghee and vegetable-oil-based ghee (vanaspati). Vanaspati is a partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, widely used commercially.
“This ghee is cheaper but has a high amount of trans-fats,” Pallavi Srivastava, a nutritionist at Evolve Medspa told Times of India. “Pure Ghee, on the other hand, does not contain oxidised cholesterol or trans-fatty acids and tastes great too.
“Cow’s ghee is full of nutritive qualities. Pure ghee contains only those fatty acids or saturated fats that are primarily (89%) short-chain fatty acids. It is the longer-chain fatty acids that are associated with blood clotting and thrombosis… Lab studies have shown pure ghee to reduce cholesterol both in the serum and intestine.”
Ghee can also make a chef's life so much easier. "We get guests with lactose intolerance, so ghee makes our life easy as generally, lactose intolerance person is fine with ghee," Atta Head Chef Harry Dhanjal tells SBS.
"We make our own ghee at Atta, the process is really simple. We buy unsalted butter and put it on slow heat, this process allows to remove milk solids and water and gets us butterfat/clarified butter, aka ghee. As soon as butterfat turns into golden brown we know the ghee is ready."
Ghee adds to the flavour of many Indian dishes and Harry mentions the slow-cooked dal bukhara: "The high ghee content as a substitute for butter means we can cook slowly for over 15 hours without the worry of burning the flavour."
Harry's tips for home cooks
Harry's offers advice for home cooks wanting to introduce ghee into their cooking:
1. First and foremost, try to make the ghee at home as it is very simple to make.
2. Until you're used to working with ghee, try to keep your heat at medium as ghee reaches its smoking point very quickly. Once you're more experienced with using ghee, you can increase the heat.
3. Keep ghee at room temperature and it should be good for months.
Whether it’s slow cooking a dal bukhara or crisping up the skin on your fish, top chefs know the drill: it’s gotta be ghee. And Hodges has you covered thanks to this week's Food Safari Water hit of pan-fried dory - ready in ten minutes! Get the recipe here.