When Did Ghee Go Mainstream?

November 28, 2016

I just finished reading Elaine Khosrova's Butter: A Rich History, which came out earlier this month. Butter is a book that traverses the globe, and Khosrova writes with authority—and keen cultural respect—on the multifarious ways this hunk of dairy has formed the backbone of dishes across the world.

The most striking element of this 300-plus page book was, to me, the matter-of-factness with which Khosrova discusses ghee, the clarified butter that is elemental to South Asian cooking. She notes ghee's appeal is both culinary and pharmaceutical. Khosrova admits she has begun to deploy ghee frequently in her own cooking, such as when browning meats or sautéing vegetables—not just in Indian recipes and curries that call for it.

This made me smile. After all, there was a period, during my childhood, when ghee—this clarified butter that was a fixture of my mother's cooking, usually bought from a Subzi Mandi in a canister the size of a Nivea container—felt like a secret, treasured culinary talisman. No one else, beyond Indian households like mine, knew about ghee. Growing up, I would routinely eat spoonfuls of basmati rice and dal every night with a dollop of ghee. "It's good for you," my mom always told me, scooping it onto my plate and cloaking it in piles of rice that it'd sit underneath until it dissolved beneath the heat. Ghee enriched dinners of dal and rice substantially.

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But I would never retain my mom's explanation of ghee, which was as follows: It was a healthy, aromatic form of clarified butter. I had an astonishingly difficult time articulating this difference between butter and ghee to non-Indian friends at school. It didn't help that this word was impossible to pronounce in a way they would be able to understand (I'd often have to spell it out, which confused them further).

That was in the mid-aughts. I've noticed that the landscape for knowledge of ghee has changed considerably since. I believe it was around the time I went to college in the Bay Area—a hotspot for health food—in 2010 when I learned that my new collegiate peers, not just Indian kids, knew what ghee was. I didn't need to explain it.

Though I could speak to my own anecdotal experience, I couldn't quite pinpoint when ghee became "a thing" that permeated the greater American consciousness beyond that of the South Asian diaspora. Khosrova, whom I spoke to this weekend, attributes its rise to a few other factors. "Some might say that the moment Walmart started to carry ghee—in 2009, I think—marked its shift to the mainstream," she told me. "That certainly is some kind of litmus test."

Photo by Algonquin Books

"What's intriguing about the growth of the ghee market in the States, I think, is that much of it has been driven more by the exploding yoga scene rather than food, fashion, or media," she observed. "Yoga is so closely linked to Ayurvedic systems of health, which very much advocate the use of ghee made from cultured milk." She explained practitioners of yoga are often regularly exposed to the Ayurvedic message of dietary wellness, to which ghee is central. Ghee has, as a result, acquired quite a reputation for being a "healthy" cooking fat.

Khosrova reminded me that ghee is still undergoing its gestation period for a large swath of America—there is a middle America beyond the foodie fringe who does not know what ghee is. For some, it has not yet had its "moment." Yet, to a good number of Americans whom I could never explain it to lucidly and eloquently, ghee is something that no longer needs clarification.

Elaine Khosrova's Butter: A Rich History is out now from Algonquin.

When did you first know about ghee? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


scott.finkelstein.5 December 20, 2016
So it's just drawn butter, right?
alicia November 29, 2016
Ghee and I met in a Madhur Jaffrey book. I wanted to cook Indian food at home to save money, but ghee was so expensive in the suburban Midwest that I substituted butter with the understanding that they were not the same thing. Needless to say, the dishes were underwhelming, if not flat out gross, with the substitution. I also abandoned cooking Indian food at home shortly thereafter. A decade later, I was living in Chicago and dating my husband (Kolkata born and raised). We started cooking together, and he gifted me a large jar of Amul ghee once he stopped laughing at the tale of my early attempt with Madhur Jaffrey's recipes. It really does make all the difference.
Kara November 28, 2016
You're leaving out the huge influence of "diets" like Paleo and Whole30 and AIP. I know a lot of people who had no clue what ghee was until they got on the Whole30 bandwagon.

Now my thoughts on those "diets" are a whole other issue entirely. :)
Can't L. November 28, 2016
You have perfectly articulated my experience and observations about ghee in America!! Growing up in a South Indian home, ghee was as a must with every course of the meal as much as it is essential to finish the meal with yogurt rice (this was the only course without ghee!). To this day I eat dal with ghee....especially dal. And piping hot white rice (Sona Masoori for everyday fare!)