The Value of Ghee
Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. It's the sound of that ever busy household yard in Ghoshpara, Balijuri, in Jamalpur's Madariganj. It's off the road and down an alleyway to the right, unless you care to tread the straw between the weighty “Australian” and half-weighty “half-Australian” cows. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. There's a thin rope being pulled, indeed there are two. First one side then the other, backwards and forwards in unison. The energy of teamwork is turning a claw-footed stick called a gholat or a kata – churning milk in a bucket into butter. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. It's the sound of a thousand years. It's hypnotic.
Dulal, Ananda, Shopon, Paresh... There's a row of rooms, a long row along one side of the narrow yard. Morali, Dhiren, Mitu, Panesh... And more rooms, on the other side and somewhere down the back. It can't be easy for Renu Bala Chandra Ghosh, 80, to get about like she does. But she's too busy to think about it, hauling baskets of leaf litter in from the roadside. Chanmahan, Dilip. Noresh and Niresh... It can't be easy to count the cousin-brothers, without even considering the wives and grandchildren. There are many members of the Ghosh household. She is of course the mother of Paresh. Anyway, she's too busy to think of it. The sun is setting. She's collecting handful-gloops of butter from the bucket and slopping them into a metal pot. She knows the family's life-recipe that's descended through the ages. Hers must be a longer life of simple steps.
Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. There's a woman, indeed there are two, walking up and down the yard nursing babies in their arms. A couple of children are amused, busily, with a drumming toy on the dirt. Chickens are moving about with their broods while warily two kittens watch the butter making from the side of the house, half-concealed by its tin wall. The cats are waiting for their chance to stealthily sample a little of that Ghosh dairy hospitality. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. Every day. What a torment! It must be cat hell to have that sound, those enticing smells; except of course when the luck runs and it suddenly, briefly becomes cat heaven.
Ghee is a South Asian type of clarified butter. Its colour, texture and taste depend on the quality of the butter and the technicalities of the boiling process. Ghee has been used in homa, fire sacrifices, for over 5,000 years; and of course in food.
Nilma Chandra Ghosh, 25, has discovered guests in the yard, or maybe customers. There is no official market for Ghosh ghee. The customers are drawn in by the family name – like the kittens they find the source. She is of course the wife of Liton, son of Paresh; and she's soon thinking about tea. She calls to Narayan, 18, to find biscuits. He is of course the son of Noresh.
Narayan is finishing his HSC this year, he says, and hopes to study political science. “Let's see how my study goes.” He will not continue the Ghosh tradition as his mainstay like his elder brother does – on the other hand, it hardly seems likely he could live a life that is entirely ghee-free. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh – it's teamwork. It's the family. It's the sound of Ghosh. Of a morning before class Narayan pulls the bovine udders; to the sound of squelching spurts he aims fresh Australian-cow and half-Australian-cow milk into a bucket. “Australian cows give twenty plus litres of milk per day,” he says, “An ordinary cow gives ten. Our family has been making ghee forever.”
Each brother produces a minimum of 2 kilograms per day but they make more when the prices rise, at the time of Eid and in winter. Each kilogram will sell for about 1,000 taka while the by-product, 35 kilograms of liquid doi, or curd, will fetch another 1,000 taka.
“We have around two hundred cows in total,” Narayan says, “Some brothers have more, others less. Those with fewer cows buy milk from outside. It takes forty kilograms of milk to make one kilogram of ghee.” Ah, but if the milk is bought from elsewhere an average day's profits are reduced to 500 taka, so for a Ghosh those Australian and half-Australian cows surely come in handy.
Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. Kalpana and Topon Chandra Ghosh, mother and son, are the ones pulling the ropes, churning butter in the yard. They are of course the wife and son of Paresh. And it seems to be enough exercise – a half an hour upper-body workout per bucket. The trade must keep the whole family fit and healthy. And over and above the “together” in it, the teamwork quality, it looks meditative – that sort of repetition that's all together good for the mind. Ghee has many advantages. A Ghosh life is a well-paced together-life.
First the milk is boiled before being dipped into the pond for half an hour to cool, Topon says. It's then that the churning starts. When the transformation to soft butter is complete, the solids are collected and water drained. Then it's boiled and sent to the pond again.
“Madarganj ghee is tasty,” says Topon. “Its quality is high because of the fresh milk and our process. While others use machines we churn by hand.” And they know how to boil it – a secret, that final phase – medium heat, not too hot or too slow. About thirty minutes of flame from butter to ghee, so it goes.
And finally he's arrived – he's late but he's here. Of course I'm talking about Paresh. “Many people come here and buy the butter instead,” he says, “It makes no difference to us because the profit is the same. But they make their own ghee from that, to sell, with added impurities. Our ghee you can only buy here.”
As he helps his wife strain the newly boiled ghee in the kitchen house, he's unmistakably cheerful. One could be forgiven for thinking he's always so – that kind of life pleasure cannot easily hide like kittens beyond a tin wall. “Ghee can last for six months out of the fridge.” He's proud of his product.
“Even if there was one taka profit in it,” says Paresh with a grin, “I would still make ghee.” Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. The sound of a large, contented family. The sound of a thousand years. The sound of ghee-makers making ghee.
Oh, and, there's one other little thing worth mentioning – those Australian cows and the half-Australian cows... There's no such thing as an Australian cow, not really. Perhaps they came to Bangladesh from Australia, where there are of course many cows. But the black and white ones – in Australia they're commonly called Holstein Friesians, from the north of Holland and Friesland in Germany, originally. That would make them a little more German-Dutch, technically. But of course it's hardly something for Renu Bala Chandra Ghosh to worry about.