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We know so little about milk

In few countries is the cow as honoured as she is in India.

Even before the current gau rakshak fever began, Indians – and not just Hindus – have treated our cows with a measure of respect.


And yet, the sad truth is that we love the cow in the abstract. We say she is our mother. And some of us use her as an excuse to pick on those we don’t like anyway.


   But if I were to ask any self-proclaimed cow lover to name three breeds of cow that are popular in India, the chances are that I would get no answer. Contrast this with the rest of the world, where such breeds as Holstein, Chianina, Angus or Brahman (in South America; their ancestors were Indian cows) are virtually household names in the countries where they graze.


   Nor do we care too much about how our cows are kept or even, whether they are happy. Some years ago, I was taken to visit a dairy farm in Ireland. “We like to ensure that our cows are stress-free,” the farmer said.


   Stress-free? I was incredulous.


   Yes, said the farmer. The best milk will come from a cow that is happy. A tense cow gives you milk that does not taste right.


   My scepticism unabated, I asked how they could possibly tell whether a cow was happy.


   Easy, he said. When he sold his milk, the buyers tested it. If they found epithelial cells in the milk (a sign of stress), they rejected the whole batch. So, it was in the farmer’s interest to keep his cows happy.


   In other parts of the world, there exists a deep commitment to protecting and preserving breeds of cattle. One of the most famous example in recent years is the origin of the trendy Stinking Bishop cheese. In 1972, a farmer called Charles Martell in the Gloucestershire region of the UK discovered that there were just 68 Gloucester breed (his local breed) heifers left in the world. Determined to promote and protect the breed, Martell began making a cheese from their milk. When the cheese (which, be warned, is very smelly) became trendy, other farmers began to take interest in Gloucester cows. There are now 450 Gloucester cows in the world and the number is growing.


   Contrast this kind of commitment to a local breed of cow to our own indifference. I am willing to bet that most people (outside of the dairy business) have never heard of Gaolao, Rathi Hariana, Deoni, Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Gir or Tharparkar. And yet, because these are common Indian breeds, nearly all of us have drunk the milk of these cows.


   But why go that far? Do you know whether the milk you are drinking is from a cow or a buffalo? I bet you don’t, because in India, we treat these quite distinct kinds of milk as being interchangeable.


   When I was growing up in Bombay, we got our milk from a doodhwalla who had water buffaloes on his little farm on the outskirts of the city. The iconic Aarey Milk Colony sold both buffalo and cow milk but even then, nobody bothered to make it clear which was which.


   Now, post the development of Amul and new packaging technology, it is even harder to tell what kind of milk you are drinking because the dairies don’t always volunteer the information. Moreover, they often promote milk that most Western foodies would treat with contempt.


"Our ghee fell into disrepute because of flawed American research that suggested that all saturated fats were bad for the heart and led to a global shift away from ghee."

   One example: do you know what toned milk is? It is milk to which milk powder and water have been added. This is done to reduce the fat content. Many brands of toned milk combine cow and buffalo milk (which is much fattier than cow milk) and nearly all of the toned milk sold in India would be regarded with derision by anyone who is familiar with the taste of fresh milk.


   You can sometimes get milk that is properly labelled – Amul Diamond is full-fat buffalo milk – but most times, the big brands work on the assumption that consumers don’t care and can’t tell the difference anyway. I often wonder if the multi-nationals that sell this watered-down mixture of powder with cow-buffalo milk in India would dare sell the same milk in their home countries.


   Because we a) know so little about milk b) only pay lip service to our love of the cow, we rarely produce milk products that are world-class or innovative. There is no Indian equivalent of Stinking Bishop cheese. Most Indian cheese is rubbish except for a few tiny artisanal producers. If you make dahi at home it will nearly always taste better than the industrial packaged yoghurt you find in the shops.


   This is sad because all the evidence suggests that Indians are good with milk products. Throughout Italy, for instance, the dairy business is run by immigrants from Punjab who have mastered how to make Italian cheeses. Ironically, some of Italy’s most famous cheeses are made from the milk of the water buffalo (the same animal that we use for milk here) and mozzarella is the best example. (Of course they use real buffalo milk and do not mix it with milk powder and cow’s milk.)


   Most Indian butter (actually all, not most) is no more than mediocre. And until Amul got into the act we weren’t even making the one milk product that Indians invented for mass consumption: ghee.


   As you probably know, ghee is clarified butter or a milk fat that remains stable at high temperatures. All the evidence suggests that when our ancient texts talk about butter, they mean ghee. (Translators decided that the word ‘butter’ worked better). In ancient times ghee was nearly always made from cow’s milk (one reason why the cow was so prized). Its use in rituals and as fuel for diyas dates back 5,000 years, the ‘makhan’ that Lord Krishna loved was probably what we would now call ghee.


   Ghee was such an integral part of Indian life that we actually made money exporting it to countries that prized Indian ghee. The ancient Romans loved clarified butter and till the second century, Indian ghee was sent to Rome. As late as 1930, India exported 2,000 tons of ghee every year. (The consumers were foreigners; there were few NRIs or PIOs in that era.)


   Our ghee fell into disrepute because of flawed American research that suggested that all saturated fats (like butter and ghee) were bad for the heart and led to a global shift away from ghee.


   In any case, ghee was becoming more and more expensive and foreign brands began selling their margarine-like ghee substitutes in India. A Dutch company called Dada began to export vanaspati to India in 1930; then Lever bought the rights, renamed the product Dalda in 1937 and had a monopoly in the Indian market till the 1980s. As the health scares around ghee grew, Dalda began to be seem like a healthier alternative while ghee was dismissed as an artery-clogger.


   We now know that vanaspati (a trans-fat) is actually unhealthier than butter and as the bogus research that led to the demonisation of dairy fats has been discredited, ghee is slowly regaining popularity.


   Which is a relief because ghee is an excellent fat. Not only does it reach high temperatures without burning (as butter does) it also imparts a wonderful flavour to the food, a sort of rich, nutty taste that works best with rice dishes. In my view, you can’t really make authentic Indian food without ghee and I am glad that more and more chefs are coming around to that view. (Indian food with olive oil and other trendy fats usually tastes wrong.)


   Nor does ghee have to be made from milk fat. I recently bought a jar of goat milk ghee and used it to flavour a homemade garlic achaari risotto. The effect was fabulous.


   But goat’s milk ghee will remain a minority interest for now. (Though goat milk has less lactose and if it was good enough for Gandhiji then it should be good enough for us all.) Instead we should focus on cow and buffalo milk and their by-products, because they are the areas where India has an historical advantage.


   There is something worrying about a nation that venerates the cow and still knows so little about it. And there is something slightly dubious about multinationals that flog a second rate mixed-origin milk in India that they would never dare sell in the West.




  • Beena 22 Nov 2018

    Hello Vir,
    Very good points - but there is a growing movement for A2 milk (in Mumbai at least) , where they source milk from "Happy" Native breed Cows the allegory given by your Irish farmer. Couple of examples - Vitafarms, Dear Cows, Go Srushti , which claim to rear and take care of Desi Gir cows - and hence command a premium over other regular milk providers (a Warna / Mother Dairy). The movement is catching on - and I hope it moves in the direction you indicated in your article :)

  • Rao 19 Nov 2018

    This is a subject that needs more articles like these. But I'm not convinced of - Most Indian butter is no more than mediocre. I've tasted butter from Normandy, Brittany, New Zealand & Switzerland ones, apart from butter from central Karnataka, Maharashtra & UP. Indian butter is indeed excellent but gets a bad rap as "desi". Totally unfair. I've prefered Indian cow ghee to American-made ghee in PA/NJ/NY.

  • Mohit 17 Nov 2018

    This article should be graded at par with a tax free movie. It should become part of school curriculum.
    Additionally, food for thought, why do western research favourably centre around their products?

Posted On: 17 Nov 2018 01:55 PM
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