A lack of culinary imagination has made paneer ubiquitous. But unbeknownst to most, India has been churning out regional variants of cheese for centuries—iterations that’ve never gotten their due. Things are now changing. Cheese varieties that had become obscure are slowly being picked up by chefs and restaurateurs around the country. With phrases like ‘going back to the roots’ and ‘eating local’ being bandied about, Indian cheese is enjoying the sort of celebrity status a Roquefort has in a French cave. A hitherto unknown cheese board full of regional Indian variants has made its national entry. Hopefully, enough to keep aside the Camembert and brie for a while.
A savoury derivative of the Portuguese-introduced chhena—the split cow’s milk cheese used in most Bengali sweets—the chewy bandel from West Bengal is different from its progenitor in two ways. First, it is thoroughly salted and then sun-dried into circular disks. Second, it is often smoked over coconut husks for a more Italian scamorza-like intense flavour. It’s best enjoyed on its own as a snack and not added to any dish.
With the recent nod of the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India on the declaration of the yak as a food animal, the spotlight is now on yak milk churrpi, which is also a salted and dried cheese. Made from yak buttermilk, Ladakhi churrpi—believed to be a good source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and vitamins—is found in regions along India’s Himalayan belt, as well as in Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, where it is known as churu. It is made like ricotta by boiling the buttermilk, until the milk solids separate from the whey. This results in a soft mass that is drained and then pressed under heavy weights, till it morphs into a hard, unyielding cheese.
It was in 2013 that Radhika Khandelwal, chef-owner of the Delhi and Goa outposts of the Fig & Maple restaurant, first started working with indigenous cheeses, especially churrpi. “Also called durkha, churrpi has the reputation of being the world’s hardest cheese, but also comes in a soft variety,” she says.
“I remember my sous chef got some back with him from Tibet and explained how it is consumed. Today we use soft churrpi in both our chicken and cheese dumplings, and the pumpkin and nut one.”
Speaking of the Himalayas, kalari cheese from Jammu has a hard, outer coating that ensconces a soft interior. It is also called maish krej and is made by the nomadic Gujjar tribe of the region. “It is a sour cow-milk-ripened cheese that’s stretched when still hot, much like mozzarella. Kalari is shaped into small, puck-like rounds and placed over pine needles into tiny cups called donas made from leaves.
The porous leaves of the donas help drain off the whey and the pine needles give kalari a distinct aroma and flavour. The rounds are then left to dry in the sun and grilled on a pan like a stretchy halloumi,” says Shubham Sharma of the Kalari Factory cafe. With branches in Udhampur and Jammu, the cafe produces and stocks the local cheese, while also serving dishes like kulchas and momos made with it.
It’s easy to see why parallels are drawn between Dutch gouda with Kalimpong cheese. This hard and crumbly cow’s milk cheese from West Bengal traces its genesis to over a century ago. Believed to have been made at a monastery in Kalimpong, it is mildly flavoured, although an intensely pungent variety is also available. “Kalimpong cheese is seeing a revival with people like Samuel Yonzon of Dairy Makarios Bous in the eponymous district, who’ve made it their mission to revive it after the Swiss Dairy in Kalimpong shut,” says Khandelwal.
The Parsi delicacy of topli nu paneer is another cheese that rarely breaches its socio-cultural boundaries. This soft cottage cheese is found mostly in Parsi-saturated strongholds of Pune and, particularly,
Mumbai. “A cross between a mild mozzarella and a creamy burrata, this lightly salted cheese with
a wobbly countenance is best eaten on its own,” says Mumbai-based Delna Tamboly, an artisanal cheesemaker, who still makes topli nu paneer the old-fashioned way, albeit with a slight twist. Though the milk is traditionally coagulated using dried goat intestines, these days synthetic rennet is used
in its preparation to make it all-vegetarian,” she says. Tamboly dubs her endeavours in this sphere “a small gesture towards keeping a precious dying art alive”. Indeed.
Grilled Kalari with Persimmon-Tomato Salad
✥ 1 piece of kalari cheese
✥ 5 cherry tomatoes, sliced
✥ 1 persimmon (balled using a melon baller)
✥ 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
✥ 5-6 almonds (crushed)
✥ Handful of seasonal greens
✥ Few bread croutons
✥ 2 tbsp olive oil
✥ 1 tsp lime juice
✥ Salt and pepper
✥ 1 tbsp coriander (finely chopped)
✥ 1 tsp mustard
✥ 1 chopped green chilli
✥ Sprinkle salt on the kalari and grill on each side
✥ Make the dressing by whisking all the ingredients
✥ Toss in the tomatoes, onion, persimmons and greens with the dressing
✥ In a bowl, add the salad, top with the grilled kalari and place some more persimmons on top. Garnish with croutons and almonds.
(courtesy: Radhika Khandelwal)