Pass the Ghee, PleaseIt is difficult for most Americans to believe that a little fat in their diets can be healthy, let alone be considered good medicine. In Ayurveda, however, pure clarified butter, known as ghee, is one of the most powerful tonics. It is used to heal wounds, improve digestion, fight free radicals, and boost the immune system. Ghee is also believed to enhance one's ojas, or "life energy."
"For centuries, ghee has been considered a rasayana, which means a healing food that balances both body and mind," says Shubhra Krishan, author of Essential Ayurveda.
And ghee has science on its side. "Most of the digestive enzymes are fat-soluble, and their precursor is fat," says Jay Apte of the Ayurvedic Institute of America in Foster City, California. "Since ghee is 100 percent pure fat, it stimulates those enzymes, allowing food to be broken down more efficiently." Building on this idea, Ayurvedic practitioners often use ghee as a base in their herbal formulations. For example, the preparation pancha pikta ghrita combines five bitter herbs with ghee in order to quickly and evenly deliver herbal healing deep into the body's lipid-based cell walls. Ghee can help protect those cells as well. Two of its ingredients—vitamin E and beta-carotene—are known antioxidants, so it can be categorized as a free-radical fighter.
Ghee is not something you want to overconsume, though, especially if you have weight or cholesterol issues. "We need fat in small amounts to stay healthy, and Ayurvedic physicians recommend consuming ghee in very small quantities," explains Krishan, who adds one to two teaspoons per day to her meals.
Although ghee is simply butter with the sugar and protein solids removed, it is not often recommended for cooking, because it is considered too heavy and heat can alter its chemical structure. Instead, Krishan suggests stirring a teaspoon into freshly cooked rice, spreading a bit on toast, or using it to top a baked potato.
Ghee can be found in most health food stores and specialty markets, but it is easy to make at home and keeps well. Melt one pound of organic, unsalted butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When the butter comes to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered and unstirred for 45 to 60 minutes. Once the water is gone and the milk solids have settled to the bottom, ghee will appear as a transparent, pale golden liquid on top. Immediately strain it into a clean jar. Ghee stays fresh for weeks (some say up to a year) at room temperature.
Linda Knittel is a nutritional anthropologist, freelance writer, and coauthor of The Soy Sensation.