Burfi, peda, gulab jamun and a host of other traditional Indian sweets owe their taste and texture to the humble khoya. This versatile base and primary ingredient in mithais is nothing but milk concentrated and reduced to one-fifth of its original volume through heating in an open pan. The bulk of Indian sweets are made from khoya (partially heat-desiccated milk), chhena (coagulated milk drained of whey), chakka (concentrated curd) and, of course, ghee/makkhan (butter fat).

While we do have quite a few industrial-scale producers of canned/cup-packed rasogolla, gulab jamun, shrikhand and other mithais (the likes of Haldiram, Bikanervala, Amul and K C Das) and also of ghee (Patanjali, RKG and various dairy cooperative brands), there are, however, hardly any organised manufacturers of khoya or chhena.

Out of India’s annual milk production of 175 million tonnes (mt), an estimated 10 mt goes just for converting to khoya. At Rs 200 per kg, the value of India’s 2 mt output of khoya would be worth Rs 40,000 crore. It is intriguing, then, why a commodity having such a humungous market size isn’t really on anybody’s radar. With an assured market — including scores of halwais (sweetmeat makers) and households — it is an ideal product to move milk up the value chain. Our traditional sweets were, after all, developed basically to preserve the nutritional goodness of milk and to extend its shelf life under high ambient temperatures.

Khoya is obtained by rapidly evaporating milk in shallow pans to a total solids content of about 70 per cent. About 5-6 kg of cow milk yields 1 kg of this dense ball of protein and fat, which has a shelf life of a few days at room temperature and can even be frozen for long-term conservation. Currently, 99% of all khoya is produced on cottage scale in rural/mofussil areas and brought to urban centres for making khoya-based sweets. The lack of standardisation due to production in informal units, using very rudimentary technology, tends to compromise in quality. Further, it is reasonable to believe that sizeable quantities being sold in the market are adulterated: How else is khoya sometimes available at Rs 150 per kg, when the raw product itself (5 litres of milk) costs that much?

We have established khoya-making clusters such as at Srivilliputhur in Virudhunagar district of Tamil Nadu, but the units there too are mostly small scale. There is no nationally-known brand of khoya. Organised dairies should not only add khoya to their basket of products, but also aim to manufacture at least 20% of the khoya currently marketed in the country. If this production of 4,00,000 tonnes is done over, say, 200 days in a year, it would require a capacity of some 2,000 tonnes per day. An average modern khoya plant with 40 tonnes/day capacity — there could be 50 of them — will need to handle 2,00,000 litres of milk daily.

None of the large-scale dairies now produces khoya, as even the available machines mostly use run-of-the-mill scraped surface heat exchangers that merely simulate the traditional batch-type process involving evaporation of water and concentration of milk. These can handle only about 1,000 litres of milk per hour, whereas modern dairies can process 10,000-50,000 litres. But there are today more sophisticated, even patented, processes of continuous khoya-making using scraped surface heat exchangers arranged in cascade fashion. Such processes, amenable to industrial-scale production, also employ vacuum evaporators that result in lower energy consumption and use of steam as opposed to coal or firewood.

By deploying the newly-developed continuous manufacturing machines and processes, khoya can be the perfect product for adding value to raw milk, assuring better returns to the primary producer and secondary handler alike. Like milk powder and white butter, it can also be produced from the surplus milk during the flush winter-spring months and frozen, so as to make available in plenty in the lean summer and monsoon months. The khoya supplied by organised dairies under reputed brand names would, moreover, provide quality integrity and assurance to the large quantities of mithais produced even by ordinary halwais. The quality of milk-based sweets is frequently questioned because of fear of adulterated ingredients. Branded khoya could eliminate these fears and stimulate demand for mithai, which is good for our milk producers as well.

The National Milk Grid, originally conceived during Operation Flood to link rural milk sheds with urban markets of the country, works on the use of surplus conserved dairy commodities to even out regional and seasonal variations in supply and demand. Currently it consists only of milk powder and white butter. Khoya can be added to the list of dairy commodities for better functioning of the grid. The informal market is already doing it in a way, by storing khoya in quantities just enough to meet the festival demand during Diwali. Even chakka for the manufacture of shrikhand is prepared in winters for use in the summer marriage season. By taking the load off high demand for milk in summers, when production by animals also dips, chakka is contributing to the orderly functioning of the milk grid.

Khoya becoming part of the product portfolio of modern dairies, and also a commodity for the National Milk Grid, will ultimately benefit small dairy producers. The surplus milk produced in the flush winters can now find an additional market in organised dairies that pay better and in a more transparent manner. Consumers, too, benefit from the better quality of ingredients in their mithais.

Our gulab jamuns, burfis and rabris are today gradually losing to chocolates. For generations, khoya has created India’s sweet moments, but now several of them come out of chocolate wrappers. The 175 mt of milk produced in our country is an aggregation of the output of millions of smallholder dairy farmers. Strengthening the production and market base of our traditional milk-based sweets would multiply the economic gains right across the value chain. And khoya could be the key to that.