Betty’s Butter Was Bitter, But India’s Is Salty. Find Out Why.

We’re of the opinion that butter really does make everything better. Even the most insipid dish can be tempered by a generous pat of yellow goodness. The problem is...most freshly churned butter isn’t yellow, anybody who’s ever attempted to make it at home can attest to that. When fresh, butter is usually a creamy white consistency with a mild flavour. But in India, butter is synonymous with a flavourful, salty and – most conspicuously – a bright sunny yellow. It’s such a fundamental part of our lives today that we don’t question it, but it wasn’t always so. 

The story begins over 70 years ago, before the introduction of commercialised butter, when it was only just gaining market traction in a country that had long been reliant on ghee. White butter of course had been well known for centuries, with ‘Navaneetha’ (the Sanskrit term for white butter) even being mentioned in ancient scriptures as a favourite of Lord Krishna in his youth. But with India’s hot climate, butter quickly separates and turns rancid unless it’s clarified, which made it an unpopular choice in day-to-day cooking. 

It was only during British rule that butter started receiving attention from the masses. In fact, food scientist, K.T. Achaya cites one of the first popular references to butter only in 1780 in the household of Mrs Eliza Fay of Calcutta. Even so, it was still a largely domestic product with people who desired it regularly choosing to churn it at home from fresh cream. That was until a very savvy 13-year-old Parsi boy from Bombay saw his Shark Tank moment and turned this hole in the market into a business venture.

In 1888, Pestonji Edulji Dalal borrowed 100 rupees from his sister and opened up a coffee manufacturing unit for the princely sum of 8 rupees a month in rent. He would roast and grind the coffee in his hand-operated machine before packing it up in dozens of brown bags and selling them door to door. His precocious nature and charm helped him accrue customers and soon he had a steady stream of regular patrons, primarily from the British sahibs and upper-class residents of his area. 

Jawaharlal Nehru at Aarey Milk Colony

But like so many, success was to be his downfall. In 1946, Polson’s monopoly of the market and the support of the British government had started to disrupt the trading of farmers and other vendors in the market. The brand had been awarded rights to the Bombay Milk Scheme, transporting butter the 400 odd kilometres between Gujarat and Maharashtra and selling it at subsidised prices which edged out local competition, much to the ire of the farmers. The discontent grew and a dairy cooperative was launched by a Gandhian named Tribhuvandas Patel on Sardar Vallabhai Patel’s advice. With this, the Kaira District Co-Operative Milk Producers Union was born which was to be the first avatar of the Anand Milk Union Limited (Amul).

They were dedicated to creating the freshest, creamiest butter made that went from fresh buffalo milk to churning and to the customer with no delay. But despite their dedication to quality, their product just wasn’t selling the way they anticipated. Frustrated, they finally brought in a young dairy engineer called Verghese Kurien to determine what could be done. He reported that the reason behind Polson’s signature flavour and colour was that they were making their butter from sour cream. When the cream was allowed to sit, the lactic acid would create diacetyl, a chemical that gives out the signature ‘buttery’ aroma and taste that is still used in butter flavourings in the modern day. The method was used often in the west, especially with cow's milk, but in India's climate, the idea was horrifying to Kurien who believed it was dishonourable. He discovered that Polson would further add a heavy helping of salt to their butter in order to preserve it and help it travel further. It was this unique taste that had secured them so many loyal customers and in comparison, the Union milk seemed less flavoursome. 

Now that the secret was out, the Union too began colouring their product yellow to mimic cow’s milk butter and salting it to match the flavour. Slowly but steadily, with the help of a fierce marketing campaign, a charmingly witty mascot and a dedication to fairer practices, they gained new footholds in the nation’s hearts and kitchens before edging Polson out of the game entirely by the late 1970s. Many of India’s older residents still remember the results of the great butter wars that shaped how we breakfast today, with most of them remembering the classic flavour with a quiet yearning. But for most of us today, salty, yellow butter has become the taste of comfort. The norm that need not be disturbed. So it seems fitting that this butter that came from a story of cunning and strategy has strategically worked its way into our hearts.