The charms of malai

Often referred to as Lord Krishna’s favourite, here’s why malai holds such a special place for us.

A few years ago, when Comorin introduced the Cheeni Malai Toast on their menu, it wasn’t just an attempt to bring a classic pre and post playtime treat alive, but also an ode to the tradition of malai and its importance in our food culture. Unlike the west, which often looked at clotted cream as an ingredient to enrich their puddings or as a form of butter, malai in Indian tradition has always held the supreme place of being an ingredient that nurtures, heals and is important to our overall wellbeing – even extending its role in the beauty arena where malai is used in uptan to keep the skin supple and glowing.

Malai, in India, has not just been used as an ingredient in food but even as an important product in skincare.

“In fact,” says mind transformation expert Monalisa Kar, “much before the shea butter made its debut on beauty shelves, it was malai, especially the leftover butter from the bowl that was used to moisturise and nourish the skin, and was the perfect antidote to all kinds of dryness that affected it due to seasonal changes.” Monalisa isn’t alone in extolling the virtues of malai that often plays the versatile role of a tastemaker and an ingredient whose by-product was the nutritive-dense ghee, vaids. Royal khansamas too seemed to be charmed by this naturally occurring layer of fat and its ability to create.

In fact, culinary history is replete with fascinating dishes that have been created with malai as one of the ingredients or as the main ingredient. The Mishri Malai, which is one of the oldest formats of clotted cream in India, is a fine example of the brilliance of malai, which, while it has the same amount of sugar and protein as milk, scores well in the fat concentrate that gives it that rich, indulging taste. Incidentally, it is the fat content in malai that is pegged at 12-40 percent of the entire fat composition of milk that made cream not only a valuable ingredient in ancient India where it served as the source of instant energy but also gave it its relevance in the culinary world as a tastemaker that could crank up the taste of any dish. Old scriptures such as Charak Samhita and Rasayana mention malai as the purest source of energy – and would often recommend it to be an integral part of the meal for better immunity and digestion. Ancient vaids believed that the stomach is the genesis of all health issues, and malai, thanks to its nutritive composition – aside from calcium, malai is rich in Vitamin A and C, and with phosphorus that aids in absorbing the calcium in milk and other sources – is apt at maintaining health. The best part, one had to consume a small quantity every day to benefit from it.

A fact that science today corroborates with its new finding that makes malai a superfood.

The importance of malai and its well-understood healing benefits perhaps explain not just the number of sweets that were made using malai such as malai ladoo, kachcha kalakand and rabri but also the combinations that were created – and its use in savoury dishes as well throughout culinary history.

“The reason that ghevar is often served with a dash of rabri,” says Chef Hari Nayak (Culinary Director, Sona), “isn’t only because it creates this rich bite of food bliss but also because it aids in the process of digestion first by revving up mucus building that we often describe in terms of taste. The extra saliva in the mouth not only means that we chew the food well thus breaking the nutritive elements early on for quick digestion and energy release. This is the reason why we feel revived after having a sweet, thanks to its combination of sweet, fat and saltiness ensuring faster assimilation of nutrients and easy absorption too.”

“Malai,” he continues, “does the same more effectively, and thus has been one of the go-to ingredients for homemakers looking for quick nourishment since ancient times. In fact, old cultures have used malai in their gruel not only as a tastemaker but also as one of the key ingredients.”

“An excellent example of malai goodness is found in the chuda chakata of Odisha where a dash of malai is added to enrich the dish made with flattened rice flakes, sugar, chenna and banana. Likewise, is the case with poha-jaggery dish that is had across southern India as well as in the eastern, western and northeastern parts of India where a small scoop of malai is added to up the wholesomeness of the dish which usually is a part of the offering made to Lord Krishna during Janmastami in Udupi,” adds Chef Nayak whose fondness for working with malai stems from not only its richness and the ability to crank up the taste but also the added wellness benefit just a spoonful of malai adds to a dish.

That creaminess which meets the tastebuds first is the reason behind our deep connect with most dishes, especially when it comes to popular dishes such as dal makhani, malai kofta and of course khubani ka meetha.

Concurs Nizami food specialist Chef Pradeep Khosla, “Such was the value of cream in the nizam’s kitchen that the balai makers were especially hired to make balai that would not only make their cuisine richer, but also add value to their khubani ka meetha. In fact, the sweet brilliance comes from the kind of sweet contrast that balai brings to apricot – and not vice versa. Even today in Hyderabad, balai makers hold their own place of importance when it comes to making cream for cooking.”

It wasn’t just the nizams who were fond of the cream, nawabs, Mughals and even Marathas were equally fond of cream that eventually found its way as an add-on to not just sweets but a wide variety of dishes where cream, adds Chef Khosla, took on the taste-making part next to salt. When used cleverly – which in most cases was to finish a dish – cream could be the line that separated a dish that was well made to one befitting the royal table.  

What transformation that malai could do to a dish was however best showcased around the 19th century when India – a nation of masala milk aficionados – thanks to marketing and peer pressure was shifting to tea. It was during this time that the milk tea made its debut along with a version that soon became famous as chai, malai mar ke (milk tea with a drop of cream). This clever addition of a whipped layer of sweet, rich cloud to the tea turned tea drinking into an experience.

The addition of cream did exactly what it did for the sweet world – create this range of exceptionally rich treats that were great to taste with a bonus of health. And while cream’s wellness virtue was well known, propagated through various festivals, especially Janmastami, of which, cream or makhan was an integral part of, it did come with one caveat: thanks to its amazing taste and the feeling of bliss, cream can easily be overindulged in, leading to weight gain and other conditions.  

This is the reason that since the beginning, the usage of cream in most dishes has not been kept bare minimum but also purposeful. In sweets such as malai ladoo, kalakand and others, for instance, the role of malai is to add taste and enable easy digestion. While as cheeni malai or mishri makhan, which is often cream whipped with crystalised sugar or sugar, malai, say the culinary experts, take on the role of that of a marmalade. Where even though malai is the main attraction, it is a salve that helps with the effective digestion of toast or chapati. Of course, the enhanced taste and the happiness that is a result of the process makes it an instant nostalgic dish.

Similarly in case of coffee, tea or even with gulab jamun, where the dollop of cream acts more as a tastemaker than just indulgence. “One has to really thank nature for a wondrous ingredient such as malai, that, despite its wonderful composition,” concludes Chef Nayak, “has a really short life before it turns sour. And although even then it can be used as fat, but the kind of instant gratification it brings is lost.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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