“I’m on a diet.” These four words are guaranteed to turn any conversation around, with people instantly offering advice: “Have you tried (insert strange-sounding exercise routine)?”, “Why don’t you stop eating (insert food you’ve loved your entire life)?” and the ilk.
We’re obsessed with food, but not in a good way. Not like Nicolas-Thomas Barthe, the 18th-century poet, playwright and gourmand who loved food — to the point that he died of indigestion — and whose poor eyesight led him to keep asking his servant, “Have I had any of this? Have I eaten any of that?”
Barthe had the right idea. We obsess about what we can’t eat instead, idling around buffet tables to find items that fit our diets, resentful we can’t consume more calories than allowed. We’re full of nostalgia about the food we could relish with abandon as children, as we mournfully eat our quinoa salad.
But the nostalgia for fat-laden food may no longer be necessary. Guess what’s making its way into hipsters’ shopping carts: ghee! Yep, ghee is sweeping into American chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and in cutesy jars to boot. The word ‘artisanal’ has been bandied about. It is an integral part of new diet movements. ‘Ghee pronunciation’ is one of the suggested searches when you Google ghee. But this isn’t just a passing food trend like avocado toast or cronuts. Ghee is being embraced as something that’s good for you.
Ghee was omnipresent if one grew up in the subcontinent and/or with desi parent(s). Marketers made it synonymous with motherhood and love. It was sold in huge tins (that later doubled as storage units around the house) and was used copiously in everything from breakfast to desserts. It brought forth the familiar, most amazing smell of a sizzling tadka on a plate of perfectly cooked dal. It also formed a pool on top of curries, was unglamorous and messy, and seemed fairly unhealthy compared to vegetable and olive oils. In just a couple of decades, the familiar canisters of ghee, with ladles permanently stuck in them, have almost vanished from urban kitchens. Instead, fridges and supermarket aisles are crammed with extra-extra-extra-low-fat it-isn’t-butter spreads, while those familiar tins gather dust. A sighting of ghee evokes yelps of horror, panicked, ineffectual dabbing of parathas and straining of curries, accompanied with noses wrinkled in distaste.
On the back of official dietary advice, butter and ghee were demonised for years and blamed for heart attacks. People were urged to cut out fats and replace them with carbohydrates instead. But pure ghee and butter are now reclaiming their space in the kitchen. Food writers are calling for the consumption of butter over low-fat, processed oil and shortening, and there is new research on the health effects of saturated fats. A 2014 study lead by Dr Rajiv Chowdhury at the University of Cambridge found that it couldn’t provide supportive evidence for health guidelines in the US, which encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids — popular oils like canola and corn — instead of the saturated fats found in ghee, butter and red meat. It could also not connect the risks of heart disease with saturated fat consumption. There is growing awareness on the dangers of processed food (sauces and sugar-rich cereals) that replaced fats in diets. After extensive criticism and advocacy efforts, the US Food and Drug Administration is acting to remove trans fats found in processed food, though it still advises against saturated fats.
Ghee is also considered better to cook with because unlike other fats, it is not damaged easily by heat or oxygen. “Ayurvedic medicine has known for a long time that if you remove all the compounds from butter it’s just pure butter fat and it’s easy to assimilate,” Dave Asprey, the creator of the Bulletproof Diet, said in a phone interview. “My Indian friends told me how their grandmothers would give them ghee and basmati. In the US you would get margarine on saltines… that’s the difference.”
The resurgence of ghee has been fuelled in part by the popularity of the ketogenic and Bulletproof diets that call for extensive amounts of butter and ghee, vegetables and fatty cuts of meat. The ketogenic diet, which has been around since the 1920s, is a high-fat, low-carb diet that helps achieve a fat-burning state called ketosis. A body in a state of ketosis runs by burning fat instead of sugar. It’s meant to be better for your organs, improves your mental faculties, gives you more energy and can lead to effective weight loss. If this sounds familiar, it’s because achieving ketosis was also a principle of the once-beloved Atkins diet. But while the Atkins diet focused more on restricting carbs (which you would replace with protein) a ketogenic diet restricts both carbs and protein in favour of fat.
Asprey, an entrepreneur and tech investor, took the idea of ketosis a step further by combining the high-fat, low-carb diet with ‘body hacks’ ranging from supplements to avoiding foods that cause inflammation. But Asprey’s most well-known creation may be Bulletproof coffee, inspired by a buttery tea he had in Tibet. He went on to improve on it with his own recipe — upgraded coffee beans, butter or ghee and MCT oil, which is extracted from coconut oil — and the buttery creation is a good entry point into the world of ketosis (as long as you resist the urge to add a doughnut to your meal). Achieving ketosis isn’t easy, though the results can be remarkable: Asprey shed a hundred pounds during his weight-loss journey.
These diets, which involve eating ‘healthy’ fats, aren’t revolutionary. They are a throwback to how we ate just a few decades ago. Our grandparents, by and large, ate seasonal, organic vegetables or red meat cooked in ghee. But we’ve been brainwashed to believe that this lifestyle is wrong; though our alternatives (think processed cheese, sugar-rich, fat-free food and ‘light’ butter) don’t seem to have made a dent on growing waistlines or risk of heart disease. Over the years, food cooked in ghee has been replaced by green juices and gluten-free food,
and there’s even an abomination known as diet kulfi. Yet everyone is sucking in their stomachs come selfie time, and there are burgeoning yoga studios and gyms in every alley, suburb and town. Fed Up, a revelatory 2014 documentary on the American food industry, looks at this connection between health and the fitness/low-fat food mania that has dominated America since the 1970s: there are more gyms, yet people are getting dangerously overweight; more diet food items are available on tap, but people are getting ill, not healthier.
So were our grandparents, who never did CrossFit or counted calories, right to consume ghee?
Asprey believes so. “Throw out the vegetable oil and replace all of it with ghee. There’s no way you can misuse it,” he says, “It’s like you can’t misuse egg yolks unless you’re deep-frying them.” Irfan Husain, a columnist and food writer for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, believes in eating fats in moderation. “I find that food cooked in natural, minimally treated cooking mediums tastes much better,” he says. “I’m glad that modern dietary theory
has caught up with this simple culinary approach.”
After years of steering clear of it, getting back into ghee may seem wrong, like cheating on all the diet gurus one has sworn by. But start with just one tablespoon. Cook vegetables, meat or even an omelette with it. It tastes incredible. And it makes you feel full and sated, as opposed to itching for a cupcake about an hour after lunch. Just don’t tell your grandmother that she was right all along.
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