India's indigenous cheeses have crafted a savoury comeback: Tracing their journey to gourmet stardom
From relative anonymity to occupying starring roles in gourmet cuisine, India's indigenous cheeses have undertaken quite the journey
Kashmiri cuisine is well-known for its heady mix of spices, culture and tradition, and the streets of Jammu bear witness to this. Vendors line the roadsides selling their dishes but there’s one in particular that is a must-try — the Kalari kulcha. Few have heard of it, and fewer have tasted it. Not your usual Parmesan or Brie but equally exciting, Kalari is an indigenous Indian cheese made in Kashmir. A large round slice of this cheese is fried or grilled in oil and served between two slices of bread or pao, with various chutneys — and voila! you have Jammu’s very own Kalari kulcha.
From relative anonymity to occupying starring roles in gourmet cuisine, India's indigenous cheeses have undertaken quite the journey — and no, we're not talking about the ubiquitous paneer. After years of neglect, when this cottage industry was almost set to vanish, a sudden surge of demand and awareness has led to a belief that maybe our chefs can save this piece of tasty history from oblivion. “Using indigenous Indian cheese is the current trend. We have a number of such varieties and are striving to preserve them and create awareness,” says Mumbai-based cheese curator Mansi Jasani. Her passion for everything cheesy led to this interesting job profile and an initiative called The Cheese Collective.
Chefs — travelling to nooks and corners of the country, incorporating local flavours and ingredients and creating unique styles — have had a huge role to play in the resurgence of indigenous cheeses. Take for instance Mumbai-based chef Prateek Sadhu, who recounted how his childhood experience came into play at his restaurant Masque, a farm-to-table uber gourmet restaurant. “I have grown up eating Kalari as a snack, served with local Kashmiri bread alongside. The entire philosophy at Masque revolves around ingredients from within India, including those growing around the Himalayan region. So right from Kalari to locally-produced cheeses from Pahalgham, we have tried to incorporate these by giving them our own spin — like a cheese brûlée which literally means burnt cheese. It’s basically cheese custard with pistachio nuts, almonds and we do a seasonal jam and sourdough bread,” says Prateek.
These risqué ventures work out because the foodies of today are themselves aware of the ingredients used and conscious of its origins. “Industrialised cheese was almost killing the 200-year-old cottage industry of Indian indigenous cheese. The current generation was exposed to packaged cheese attractively sold to induce a buying pattern, but not to our own local ones,” says chef Sabyasachi Gorai who serves indigenous cheese at his Armenian restaurant, Lavaash by Saby in New Delhi. “Today, the clientele is more excited and intrigued when I serve indigenous cheese, curious to know more and open to the flavours. One has to remember that such curated gourmet cheese comes with a sharp, strong taste, unlike the milky-bar effect of packaged cheese,” Sabyasachi adds.
Believe it or not, the government had a hand in the revival of Indian indigenous cheese. In 1984, it banned the import of animal rennet — taken from the stomach of newborn calves, killing the animal in the process — used in cheese-making. However, since economic liberalisation in 1991, packaged foreign brands entered the market and the lines blurred. In April 2016, the Beauty Without Cruelty organisation filed a complaint with the government when it found Amazon India selling bottles of liquid animal-derived rennet, which were then removed. In 2011, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) cracked down on the cheese import industry. Not only did it ban all imported cheese which used animal rennet but also declared that all milk and milk products coming into the country must be heat-processed to kill bacteria. This sounded the death knell for most raw milk cheese, except highly-processed ones.
Chefs began to opt for Indian indigenous cheese rather than low-quality imported ones. This opened up the market for this cottage industry to make a comeback. “Since Indian cheese was not a commercially viable product, with very low and localised profit, businesses didn’t cater to it. Today there are more takers as many restaurants commercially use varieties of Indian cheese. Over the past three years, I have noticed a considerable rise in price,” says Sabyasachi. He recalls how the Kalimpong cheese, initially made by a priest in Sikkim and available locally there, is today made in the quaint hill-station of the same name in West Bengal and available in only one store in Kolkata’s New Market (the erstwhile Hogg’s market), and nowhere else in India.
Not only has the taste and craft been saved, but these varieties of cheese from different regions of India come with their own unique slice of history and culture. Food historian Pushpesh Pant writes that cheese as a dairy product was sold as a commodity on the Silk Route. There are textual references of cheese dating back to the Kushan period: “the use of solids obtained from the mixture of warm milk and curds”. While the warrior community was served this ‘solid’, the thin liquid (whey) was given to the poor.
Bandel is a small town in West Bengal which was colonised by the Portuguese. They happened to introduce cheese, which today is called Bandel and comes with a smoky taste and flavour. Also believed to have a Portuguese influence is Surti cheese made in Surat, Gujarat. Churu is a soft and pungent cheese, used in Bhutan to make its signature national dish, Ema Datshi. Churu means “rotten cheese” and it’s strong smell and flavour is used in meat preparations. Churrpi is made in the Himalayan regions from yak’s milk. Topli nu paneer is a Parsi preparation which used to be a must-have at weddings but today is supplied by only a handful of people in Mumbai.
Temperature, climatic conditions and lasting capacity played a huge role too. Other than the regions in the mountains where the temperatures are much cooler, the rest of India concentrated on other dairy products like ghee, butter and curd which could be preserved in warmer climates. Interestingly, locals say that Kalari cheese was discovered when the nomadic cattle community of Kashmir, the Gujjars, travelled with their milk from the cooler regions in the mountain to the warmer plains. The difference in temperature naturally split the milk from which they made Kalari, and used the whey to make another ricotta-like cheese called Kudan.
Coming back to the present, the dilemma that one faces with Indian cheese is how to use it, and in which cuisine. Other than local dishes, chefs have been experimenting to create new pairings, like Prateek’s cheese brûlée. Other than the usual usage in salads and crumbles, one can also mix it up with local ingredients. Sabyasachi tried a unique combination where he used the Bengali nolen gur, or date palm jiggery, instead of maple syrup with his serving of Indian cheese.
So next time you go for cheese shopping or are at a restaurant, remember to ask for the desi variety.
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