James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

No Matter How Old You Are, Chilled Butter‑Cream Was Best When You Were Young

No Matter How Old You Are, Chilled Butter‑Cream Was Best When You Were Young

Makkhan-malai in Lucknow

Growing up in Lucknow, a city in the north of India where winters were always bone-chilling, there were only two things that would make us crawl out of our cozy blankets—catching up on the morning sun and the cry of makkhan-malai on the streets. I have feeble memories of an old guy, standing at the doorstep with a huge basket on his head.

The contents of the basket always appeared mysterious to me. I’d look with wide-eyed wonder the way the old man scooped out a bit of cloudy, unsalted butter, placed it in a bowl made of a dried leaf, topped it with cream, and handed them over to the patiently waiting buyers. And I would happily take one, despite not being too fond of the dish.

Sold only during winters, makkhan-malai (literally, butter-cream) is a dairy product that every North Indian swears by. Saffron-flavored milk is thickened by boiling for a few hours, left in heavy dew for the night, and then hand-churned early in the morning. The churning creates stiff, frothy butter, which is then removed and kept aside.

In past times, the hawkers carried this butter and cream—which come from the same milk—in a basket, placed on top of slabs of ice. The ice ensured the butter wouldn’t go bad in the heat. Today the ice slabs and cane have been replaced by wooden ice boxes carried on a bicycle. Take a walk at the Chowk area in Lucknow, and you’ll see multiple vendors with conical glass cases, selling makkhan-malai. While it’s available from November onwards, the real deal is made only during peak winter, when the dewfall is heavy.

The dish has various names: makkhan-malai or nimish in Lucknow and Kanpur, malaiyo in Varanasi and Daulat ki Chaat (named after the shop owner who first started selling it) in Delhi. The Parsi community makes a version of the same dish which they call doodh no puff.

While makkhan-malai has travelled places and now sits on the menu of one of India’s most celebrated restaurants—Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent has the dish on his menu, where he tops the delicate butter with rose petals and palm jaggery—my heart belongs to the one from my childhood, sold in the tiny by-lanes of Lucknow.

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