A village along the Silk Road harbors a curious delicacy: butter that’s been buried in the ground for decades up to a hundred years.
What would decades-old butter taste like?
Ancient food preservation techniques seem complicated, not to mention somewhat unnecessary now in the age of convenience. However, they do produce some of the most interesting flavors. These flavors may not appeal to some, but they make up an important component of old communities. Perhaps the interplay of culture, history, and a primitive grasp on science makes for solidly good traditional food.
A package of maltash in its birch bark wrapping [Photo by Paul Salopek]
An old village nestled in the mountains in South Asia harbors an old secret: nuggets of cow and yak butter called maltash, wrapped in birch bark and buried in beneath paving stones. The butter stays in the ground for at least a few decades, with the oldest butter today as old as 40 to 50 years old. However, villagers used to bury the fatty loot for up to a hundred years.
The village of Ganish used to be a stop along the Silk Road, which was a web of trade routes vital to the exchange of goods and culture between numerous civilizations. Ganish is located in the Hunza, a region that once stood as an independent kingdom and was only annexed by Pakistan in the 1970s. The Hunza is situated in a valley surrounded by tall mountains, enabling the Hunza people to maintain a distinct cultural identity.
One aspect of this cultural identity is maltash, a pungent fermented butter. “The [butter] here, like all that was given to us in the valley, was of the consistency of cheese, and had a most unpleasant odour,” wrote British colonial officer E.F. Knight of the delicacy. “The older this...butter is, the more is it to the taste of the highlanders. They bury it in the ground, and it is often kept there for generations until it is used, one hundred years being quite an ordinary age for Hunza ghee.”
The village of Ganish [Photo by Paul Salopek]
As can be expected, the butter curdles in the ground over the time it’s buried. However, there’s enough acidity to stop the growth of bacteria, which thus staves off rot. This gives the butter its longevity, making it possible to keep the birch bark-wrapped packs in a hole in the ground for decades. Similar methods of food preservation can be found in other cultures around the world, showing that our ancestors had enough of a grasp on scientific processes to ensure food security.
Maltash may be an ancient feature of the Hunza’s culinary landscape, but it’s still going strong. There are families in Ganish that still bury butter, and thousands of pounds more of butter is being buried in holes around the Hunza region. If you lift up a flagstone in a village courtyard and you see a colored piece of cloth instead of dirt, that means you’ve just stumbled upon buried maltash treasure.
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