When I asked my grandparents which ingredient they believed distinguishes Egyptian cooking, they both immediately responded at the same time: “samna baladi“! Samna baladi, or ghee, is literally clarified butter. Most Egyptian dishes are traditionally prepared with ghee, which is used to saute onions, brush on meats before cooking, and for baking almost anything authentically. It’s safe to assume that you can use it instead of butter in most dishes – the flavor is rich and hearty, so a little goes a long way!
Though popularized in the West by South Asian cooking, ghee has been made in Egyptian homes for thousands of years. An article published in Nature magazine in 2008 revealed that dairy and dairy products (like ghee, cheese, butter) were consumed regularly two thousand years earlier than previously thought – making these nourishing foods more than 8,500 years old! And traditional societies still prize ghee and full-fat dairy products to this day for both their health benefits and the rich taste they impart on many dishes.
What is the history of making samna baladi in Egypt?
The article Cuisine in Alexandria: A Cosmopolitan Flavor chronicles the way that samna baladi was made in Egypt, forty or fifty years ago: “Samna baladi remains the favorite and often food would be advertised as having been cooked with samna baladi. In the good old days, well-to-do families would prepare it at home, rather than buy it from the market. A whole day would be set aside for the process, which often involved a peasant woman coming especially from the countryside to supervise the activity. Here is Wadida Wassef describing how samna was made at her parents’ home in the 1940s:
When spring came it would be time to make the yearly stock of samna. Om el Hana would appear at the kitchen door with our ration of butter which she carried on her head in a huge flat basket all the way from her village. In a first operation in the village the butter was kneaded with salt then shaped into fat sausages, then loaded onto Om el Hana’s head. Then she and her basket were sat on a donkey who took them to the railway station where she boarded the goods train that stopped here and there to pick up all manner of passenger, animal or human. When she reached our house the second operation began. Mother sitting on a low stool, Om el Hana on the floor, placed the butter in a huge copper cauldron and took turns stirring it … [the] butter settled at the bottom, the samna, without which no food cooked in Egyptian homes was worthy of the name, floated on top. It was then poured into big earthen jars and stored in the pantry to last until the next spring. The operation lasted from early morning until sunset. Samna is a classic of Egyptian cooking … The thought of food cooked in oil or vegetable fat made their stomachs turn (Gastromony in Alexandria).
Samna baladi is used prolifically in Egyptian cuisine. The fallaheen (farmers) often dip hard boiled eggs in a bowl of warmed samna during breakfast, next to a true whole-wheat pita bread sandwich of feta cheese and heirloom tomatoes. Dinner always contained samna, whether in the form of a sauteed onion in all tabeekh (Egyptian cooking – usually of vegetables – with sauteed onion, strained tomatoes and spices) or fancier dishes made during feasts, such as goullash be lahma mafrooma (filo dough filled with ground beef) or stuffed vegetables.
What are the health benefits of organic, grass-fed ghee?
Ghee that is made from the milk of cows that are pastured and grazing on lush, organically grown grass (or in Egypt, it would be barseem-fed cows) is actually very healthy for the body. Grass-fed cows produce milk (and therefore, ghee) with a higher level of CLA, or Conjugated Linoleic Acid, “an antioxidant and essential fatty acid that [...] reportedly exhibits anti-carcinogenic and other beneficial physiological effects”. The milk from grass-fed cattle also includes higher lauric acid, which aids in fighting fungus and candida. Grass-fed ghee also has a balanced ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids (3:1), as compared to grain-fed, conventionally-raised cows, which produce milk with an imbalanced ratio of the fats (20:1). This imbalance has been linked to modern diseases especially heart disease, and generally with poor health. Ghee, without man-made trans fats and hydrogenated oils, actually has a lot of healthy fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K, critical to bone, brain, heart, and immune system function, and which aid in the absorption of vitamins and minerals found in fresh fruits and vegetables. In other words, if you eat all the fresh produce in the world without adding some healthy fat, those vitamins that are fat-soluble will not be absorbed by the body.
What are some common misconceptions about ghee as a saturated fat?
Until several months ago when my interest in nutrition peaked, I hadn’t even considered buying ghee. Ghee and other foods high in naturally-present saturated fats such as whole dairy and coconuts have been demonized for the past fifty or sixty years. This is because a few poorly conducted studies in the 1950s concluded that foods that are naturally high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol contribute to artery-clogging plaque which result in heart disease – a theory that has become known as the lipid hypothesis. The dietary recommendations soon switched to ‘low-fat’ and ‘high-carb’ -diets a disasterous shift in the world of ‘nutrition’ which is currently resulting in a world-wide epidemic of obesity, climbing cases of diabetes and heart disease, and other health problems (such as fertility, hormonal and bone problems, etc.). History showcases that, for thousands of years, our ancestors liberally ate foods cooked with saturated fat (such as ghee) and yet, heart disease was significantly lower (or nearly nonexistent) as compared to today: “In America, the rate of heart disease soared during a period when saturated fats consumption fell sharply. Before 1900, heart disease was rare in America, affecting about 8 percent of the population. By 1950, heart disease caused 30 percent of all deaths in America. Today, it causes about 45 percent of all deaths” – now, it’s the number 1 leading cause of death in America.
These faulty scientific studies have unfortunately contributed to a skewed understanding of the role of good quality fats in our diet, which resulted in many doctors’ and media recommendations to switch to vegetable oils. Though many recent studies and reviews (here’s just another example) show that the assumption is unfounded, which states that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol contribute to heart disease, the medical community hasn’t yet corrected this information publicly, likely due to certain pressures from the enormously influential and corrupt food and pharmaceutical industries. Here’s a great article by Dr. Donald W. Miller, which gives a good idea of how the lipid hypothesis has come into question in recent years, and enumerates compelling evidence that the low-fat, high-carb diet is a huge hoax.
Vegetable oils are naturally meant to exist in liquid form at room temperature. Today’s ‘vegetable ghee’ (margarine, and other butter substitutes) are in solid form – and in order to make them that way, they are hydrogenated, becoming “trans fats”, now unanimously recognized as harmful for health. Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of trans fats on the body, which have been definitively proven to increase obesity and heart disease. Because butter-substitute manufacturers are now realizing that trans fats in margarine are shunned by health-seeking consumers, they’ve come up with another concoction of synthetic materials and hardened oils that are technically not “trans fats”, and it’s being recommended as a healthy alternative. “Keep in mind, though, that according to the FDA, a product claiming to have zero trans fat can actually contain up to a half gram” (Harvard). Though more studies are needed (here’s one such article) to ‘prove’ that these, such as Earth Balance and Smart Balance, are actually harmful, you need only read the ingredient lists on these products to see that there is nothing natural about them. It is quite analogous to the sugar-substitute industry, whereby, whenever a compound becomes publicized as carcinogenic, a new one is designed that is similar, but yet unproven harmful. Instead of these companies, regulators and consumers recognizing that the problem is in using “innovative” untested ingredients, they continue to assume an ingredient is harmless until proven otherwise, and to experiment with their and the public’s health.
I like to abide by Michael Pollan‘s food philosophy on processed foods: “Novelty in biology is guilty until proven innocent. Mutations are novelties, and every now and then there’s a great mutation that confers an advantage on the creature. But 99 out of 100 mutations are disasters. So when we come up with a completely new way of using a food, combining a food or processing a food, I’d just as soon watch some other people eat it for a couple hundred years before I try it.” (Pollan)
What are the benefits of cooking with ghee instead of vegetable oils?
Unlike vegetable oils, ghee has the more stable saturated bonds (i.e., it lacks double bonds which are easily damaged by heat), and therefore has a very high smoke point – in other words, it can tolerate a much higher temperature before burning (400-450 degrees Fahrenheit). Cooking oils and margarine in high heat encourage the formation of dangerous free radicals. The article “Buttering Up to Samna” explains it quite accurately: “Butter can be used for cooking, but when it is heated to a high temperature, the milk proteins are quickly scorched. In order to cook in butter at a high temperature, we prepare clarified butter. During the preparation process you heat the butter at a relatively low temperature. The heating causes the emulsion to disintegrate: the water evaporates and some of the milk solids sink to the bottom, others float to the top, and the fat remains in the middle. When you remove the floating milk solids and strain out those that have settled on the bottom, you get pure butterfat. With this fat, you can fry and cook at a high temperature, without it scorching like ordinary butter.” Also, when the butter is clarified and the milk solids are removed, the result is a lactose-free fat that will not upset the stomachs of those who are lactose-intolerant. Here’s a helpful link that explains which oils are best used for cooking, and why.
What kind of ghee is good to buy?
Here’s a detailed post about how to make ghee, or samna baladi, at home. This post in Agricultural Society gives some recipes for making herbal-infused or flavored ghee at home, which I haven’t yet tried, but look very intriguing! However, good butter is hard to find year-round (the springtime grasses produce the best quality milk), so it’s ideal to buy from a trusted source for the rest of the year. High-quality ghee is relatively expensive, and should never be compared in price with cheaply produced butter-substitutes or mass-produced vegetable oils. Samna was even expensive back in the day in Egypt, and yet, my grandparents used it liberally in most of their cooking because they recognized its health benefits and superior taste.
Through my research on real food sites, I’ve frequently come across the Pure Indian Foods brand of ghee, which is superior to any others I’ve tried. Not only is it certified organic, but it’s also 100% grass-fed, made from non-homogenized milk, and packaged in glass. The taste is authentic and fresh – even better than the kinds I grew up eating in Egypt as a child. In addition to the plain variety, Pure Indian Foods also has six other kinds of flavored organic ghee, but I haven’t yet tried any of them. Once, when I ran out of PIF ghee, I made an impulse buy at Whole Foods and thought to try Purity Farms Organic Ghee because it was a bit cheaper. I regretted the decision quickly because the taste was not nearly as strong, and the color of the ghee was a paler yellow than the grass-fed kind from Pure Indian Foods. I’m not aware of any Egyptian/Arabic brands of ghee that are grass-fed or organic, so I can’t recommend any.
How is ghee ideally stored and used?
Because the clarified butter is without milk solids, it remains stable and has a relatively long shelf-life (about a year if unopened and stored in a sealed container). Once you do open a jar, you can safely assume that it will stay good for about three months, and possibly longer if you refrigerate it. Make sure to only use clean and dry utensils in ghee, so as not to introduce moisture or any contaminant that can make it spoil.
So there you have it – more reason to enjoy ghee, without feeling any guilt about increasing your intake of saturated fats! I personally delight in cooking with samna baladi – the taste is unbeatable and authentic, reminding me of my days as a child in Egypt, enjoying my grandma’s rich and tasty cooking. If you have any questions about samna, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments section below!