Paneer! Our minds scream if there is any mention of local Indian cheese anywhere on the planet. (Though one is compelled to think, it could be the entire universe too!). It is the unquestioned superhero of the vast number of vegetarians in India. And we do love it, for its sheer versatility and its multifunctionality. Coming a close second, when speaking of Indian cheese, are our very own processed Amul and Britannia cheese.
Oh yes! They are absolutely sacrosanct in almost every Indian household. If there’s anything fancy (read gourmet) that you are looking for, then you choose from the twofold path; either you buy them from abroad or check out the “imported” items shop in your city. Blue Cheese, Ricotta Cheese, Cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda, Feta, Camembert and etcetera, etcetera; you name it and you can have it, to whip up whatever epicurean delicacies that you have the urge for.
But, what if we told you that there are things (read flavors) beyond our little world of Paneer, Chenna, Khoya and processed cheese in our country? What if we told you that our country also produces different varieties of cheese that are if not at par with the world-renowned ones but not too far behind them. Yes! They do exist and that too for a very long time. (Just in case you thought they are the gifts of globalization!) They either find their origins in the Colonial era or in the age-old practices of rural India. So, here’s a list of them for your information, so that you know that paneer is not your only option!
Bandel is a small town 50 km North of Kolkata. The Portuguese settled in the area in the 16th century to use it as a port. The Bandel Cheese, needless to say, owes its existence to the kitchens of these Portuguese settlers of Bandel, hence the name. Made in two flavors, plain (which is white in color) and smoked (which is brown in color), the Bandel cheese belongs to the “cottage cheese” family. It is made from cow’s milk and is of a semi-soft consistency and is crumbly in texture. The cheese has a salty and smoky flavor and exudes a strong aroma. It is ideal for salads, pasta, and risottos. It can be eaten as it is if soaked in water overnight to lose some of its saltiness. The Bandel cheese is now made in areas like Tarkeshwar and Bishnupur. The cheese comes in small rounds and has enough salt content to give its long shelf life.
Kalimpong is a hill station in West Bengal, not very far away from Darjeeling. The Jesuits had established a Dairy in the area in the 19th Century, and the credit goes to a certain Brother Abraham for giving us the Gouda-like Kalimpong Cheese. Coming to the cheese itself, it is definitely not one of those with a very strong aroma. It is rather crumbly in texture, with a smooth rind and has a slightly acidic flavor. Ideal for salads, this cheese can also be consumed on its own as well. When properly matured (read stored under ideal conditions) its flavors mature and just like Gouda, there’s a change in its color and the molding also increases. It is then the thing of your cheese platter with crackers or bread or something like juicy grapes.
This traditional Dogra cheese has earned the moniker of “the Mozzarella of Kashmir”. It is of somewhat stretchy consistency with a dense texture and almost touching a Mozzarella like a flavor. Besides, like mozzarella, the cheese melts on heating and hardens on cooling. Completely handmade with traditional techniques by the women of nomad shepherd communities, this artisanal cheese is also called “Maish Krej” or “Milk Chapatti” in Kashmiri. Kalari, a traditionally ripened cheese, is native to the district of Udhampur which is known to have a significant population of herders from the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities. The cheese was traditionally made from cow and buffalo milk, but later on, goat’s milk also began to be used for the same. Kalari cheese is an intrinsic part of the Jammu and Kashmir cuisine. Kalari Kulcha is a well-known street snack that is packed with the richness and creaminess of fried kalaris that are stuffed in traditional kulcha bread.
A traditional Himalayan cheese majorly produced in Tibet and Nepal; Chhurpi is also produced in Sikkim in India. This cheese comes in two textures. The soft variety and the hard variety. The soft Chhurpi is made from cow’s milk and has a neutral taste when freshly made. Once fermented is acquires a certain amount of Tanginess. It is a part of regular meals in the mountainous regions. It is used as a side dish or as a stuffing for momos or it can also be pickled.
The hard variety is made from Yak milk and is pale yellow in color. When in curd form, it is cured and dried in such a way that it turns very hard and can remain unspoiled for many years. Also known as the Himalayan chewing gum, (hello! Healthy teeth and gums) chhurpi helps to keep the body warm in mountainous terrains, besides being rich in antioxidants and omega3 and fatty acids! If we were to go by the traditional beliefs, Chhurpi, if stored properly in Yak skin, can last up to 20 long years.
The tribe of Gujjars in Kashmir seems to be the gourmands of artisanal cheese. This cheese is as rare as it could get; you can only find it in traditional Gujjar homes in Kashmir. Qudam has a salty flavor and has a rubbery yet crumbly texture. The traditional technique employed in the creation of this cheese enables it to have a long shelf life.
If we haven’t made a “Turophile” of you yet, then we wonder what more we need to do!! Just in case if you are wondering what a Turophile is, considering our topic, it could only mean “a connoisseur of cheese”. If it is too much to ask. Then at least we hope to have cured the “paneer blindness” that most of us suffer from.