So, growing up, like many of you, there were the names we had for things while we were at home and then, at school, there were the new “outside” names we would learn for those same things. The first time I began to appreciate this difference I was eight. I had recently fallen in love with mom’s bhindi and wanted to explain the wonders of it to my other friends.
“So it’s green all over…and…it’s a vegetable, you know? It’s gooey, but, like, good gooey. Stop looking at me like that. It’s just awesome. AND! When you cut it up you get these stars that you can stick on your face. The stars stick to your face!”
And that’s when it would happen.
“Oh, do you mean okra?”
Some know-it-all amongst my friends would say something like this about halfway through my excitement. There’d be some new name for just about anything I would eat at home.
“Guys, seriously. Kulfi is this whole different kind of ice cream. It kind of melts differently though. It looks like a tiny jousting stick and is delicious.”
“Oh, I think that’s just frozen condensed milk.”
“Ok. Ok. So. We put this stuff on our basmati rice. It’s called dahi and–”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure you mean long-grain rice. And you’re talking about yogurt…thinned out with some water.”
I hated this kid, through and through. It wasn’t really just one kid, but I hated this composite of smartasses in my life.
Something I thought was magical, Indian and unique would invariably be reduced down to some stupid name like long grain rice or cilantro. But I tried to be reasonable. If these items were actually used in America and had simply been given their own name here, I could learn to deal with that.
I would scour the aisles of the supermarket just to make sure these American names truly existed for the things I ate at home. There was the okra in the produce section. There was the condensed milk in the cans aisle. There was the box of long-grain rice with a bearded old black man on the cover smiling peacefully right back at me.
But the superiority of it all still upset me.
“Oh, Adi, do you mean okra?”
No, Stephen. Actually, I mean bhindi. And you know why I mean bhindi? Guess why? … Because I said bhindi! … if I meant okra I would’ve said okra you presumptuous sonnofa-
So, yes, I seethed about this throughout most of my informative years. And anything that was actually unique to my house and didn’t have some stupid outside name usually tasted too gross to actually brag about. There is no American name for karela, a devastatingly bitter gourd.
“It’s good for your blood!!!” mom could be found yelling on a weekly basis, chasing a scampering version of me who had realized what was for dinner.
And Indian sweets, not much better-tasting than karela, also don’t have Americanized names. “It’s like a really soggy munchkin,” I’d say, halfheartedly, getting a friend to try gulab jamun for the first time.
I was losing hope but then I realized the answer was so clear and so obvious. It had been with me at nearly every meal and was a source of tremendous pride.
Of course! Ghee!
Ghee is the alpha and the omega of Indian cuisine. It makes things taste good in a way that butter could only dream of. Your naan too dry or your rice too boring? Ghee. Your veggies too devastatingly bitter? Ghee! … Did you have a bad day? GHEE!
I couldn’t wait to tell my friends. When Monday hit, I hurried off to school.
“Gather around, my people,” I said to our table of nerds in fifth period lunch.
“So, listen. There’s this thing we have. It’s liquid gold that melts when hot. It’s like an oily, wax butter thing that makes other things taste amazing. It’s called ghee!”
I stared triumphantly at my idiot friend who would finally be silenced and amazed by my culture.
“Oh, do you mean . . .”
Wait, why is he saying that? I already meant what I mean! What the hell is going on here? Shut up. Shut up, Stephen!
You. Worldly. Bastard.
My heart sank. Even my beloved ghee was not safe. Even ghee was not…Indian. I gave up.
The next time in the grocery store, I searched for a jar of clarified butter to see what it looked like. I knew it wouldn’t have an elegant white Indian bull on it like I grew up seeing, likely just the words “clarified butter” and some simplistic, abstract logo. I scanned up and down the butter section. No clarified butter.
I scanned up and down the yogurt section. No clarified butter.
What is going on?
I looked through the milk section. Just milk. I found a guy named Jim working in the store. I asked him where the clarified butter was.
My heart skipped a beat. “The butter is right here,” he continued.
I couldn’t feel my legs. I said, “Yea, but where is the clarified one?”
“Yo, Cal!” he screamed at another stocker, “we got…clarified butter?”
“Clarified. I dunno.”
“We got butter. It’s right there, man!”
Jim turned to me, “Sorry, buddy. We don’t carry clarified butter.”
“Thank you so much!” I shouted loudly, startling Jim. I smiled from ear to ear. I thanked the shit out of Jim. I hugged him.
“You’re welcome,” Jim said uneasily, “but you know I said we don’t have what you’re looking for, right?”
I’ve been asking around and I have yet to actually see a jar of clarified butter anywhere. There’s butter. Yellow butter. White butter. Salted. Unsalted. Country Crock. I Can’t Believe It’s Not. But no clarified.
Some people just want to name things as a way of claiming it with no intention of using it. Would it hurt to just call it ghee? It may not be a big deal to most people but it was to me when I was eight.
I think about those days pretty much every Diwali. We use ghee to light little diwas, or candles, to celebrate our holiday—a holiday that is not condensed Channukah or clarified Christmas. It is just Diwali.
So…the next time you’re having puris, samosas, naan, butter chicken, vindaloo, or—of course—cheese dosas, explain to your friends trying it for the first time that it wouldn’t be the same without some ghee. I think that’s worth clarifying.