Saving the Smen

I’m feeling quite chuffed with myself at the moment because I’ve learnt all this stuff that I didn’t  know before. The fact that it’s old hat for most of you doesn’t phase me in the slightest and be warned, if you come near me, I’ll tell you. Mark took one look at me and ducked into his office an hour ago and he shows no signs of coming out; little does he know how tenacious I can be when I feel duty bound to improve the general knowledge of those around me. Now It’s your turn. Do you know what Smen is? I thought not. Smen is a traditional preserved butter-based oil

made from sheep and goat milk. It’s not really used in India but I thought that since I’m in the area, I’d deal with it as well. It’s usually used in the Middle East and Moroccans, especially, use it often in couscous. It’s aged like ghee and it’s seriously tasty. Sumerians have been making butter since 3,500 BC in a vertical churn and considered it important enough to write about it. Records have been found carved in stone and it was used in cooking, medicine and sacrificial worship. In Morocco, smen is still considered a delicacyand it’s made by kneading butter with herbs, spices (especially cinnamon)

and then cooked, salted and strained just like ghee. After this, it’s poured into jugs, sealed and saved for very special occasions or feasts. The aroma is considered to be magnificent which is why aged pots are sometimes brought out of cellars so that guests can sniff at it. It represents the wealth of a man and is enormously prestigious. There is a variation on the theme called samna and it can also be found in the Middle East. In Lebanon, samneh is made from butter that has been boiled until the fat in the pan is as transparent as a tear (dam’at el-eyn). It is then taken off the heat and left to settle before being carefully strained through a fine sieve into sealed containers where it will keep for a year or more. Ethiopia has a spiced version, nit’r k’ibe



  • 500 g unsalted butter
  • 2 tsp dried oregano leaves
  • 1 tbsp sea salt


  • Melt the butter over low heat in a medium sized saucepan, then wrap the oregano in s smallish piece of cheesecloth (you’re looking for an oregano teabag, really).
  • Tie up this piece of cheesecloth with a cotton string (it must be cotton) and drop it into the butter, then simmer until the butter separates into a clear golden liquid and a milk sediment (it should take about half an hour).
  • Pour off the golden liquid (it’s really just a flavoured clarified butter) and strain this through a piece of clean clear muslin (a coffee filter works just fine).
  • Transfer this to your hot sterilized glass jar, add salt and keep stirring until the salt has dissolved.
  • Cover at allow to stand out of the fridge until the mixture develops an aroma (a week or two).

Drain any liquid from the jar and then refrigerate it – use it up within 6 months.

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