The holy cow
It is a well-known fact that cows are sacred animals in the Hindu faith. In certain regions of India, it is a common sight to see cows ambling free, often reverently draped with garlands of flowers. Religious stories tell of Lord Krishna's humble beginnings as a cow herder, with art frequently depicting him tenderly looking his charges whilst Nandi, a pure white bull, is considered the devoted follower and steed of Lord Shiva.
In South India, as part of Siddha Darshan Day, worship of the cow is an important part of the celebrations and in religious rituals across the land lamps are lit using ghee. After pivotal ceremonies, milk-based sweets known as mithai are distributed to worshippers whilst milk itself is considered a favourite drink of the gods and is used to cleanse the feet of idols.
The holy cow is thought to symbolise the mother of civilisation due to the nurturing milk it provides, and perhaps for this reason the various products that originate from milk have become an integral ingredient to Indian cuisine, playing a significant role in the national diet of the country.
Created from fermenting milk, curd or yoghurt is known as 'dahi' in India. Whether plain or sweetened, curd is an excellent cooling accompaniment to hot and spicy curries. Whether in the form of a side such as a cooling raita or served as a key ingredient in a dish such as the sweet and spicy kadhi, curd is a staple on the Indian table.
Surplus dahi is usually churned into makkhan (butter) or turned into refreshing beverages like the silky, smooth lassi.
Ghee and makkhan
The clarified butter - ghee - is often employed in the kitchens of India as it has a longer shelf life than makkhan. It's wholesome flavour and aroma has been popular in India for centuries and it is an important source of fat in the Indian diet.
Makkhan and ghee are often served melted and mixed into dishes or spread on warm chapatis and other bread products. In addition, the preparation of makkhan also produces butter-milk, a nutritious beverage rich in protein and calcium.
Khoa and chhana
These major milk-based products are extremely important for the sweet industry of India. Khoa is created by the evaporation of milk with the solids used to create a variety of mitha is such as peda, burfi and gulab-jamen.
Chhana originates from hot, coagulated milk and is an essential element of the delicious dessert rasgulla. The use of khoa and chhana is particularly popular in the Eastern regions, particularly in the creation of Bengali sweets.
In the ancient, medicinal practice of Ayurveda, milk is highly recommended for the relief of excess bile, depression, heart disease, kidney troubles and a vast number of other health complaints. Milk from a black cow is considered to be the cream of the crop.
To experience just how milk is utilised to great effect in Indian cooking, pay a visit to one London's best Indian fine dining restaurants and be sure to order a side of creamy dahi, a delectable lassi or another one of the wide selection of dairy-based dishes you'll be sure to find on the menu.