Who moved my cheese?: Rediscovering Indian cheese varieties

Traditional Indian cheese to many may be synonymous with paneer. But there are many drool-worthy, indigenous varieties that can replace mozzarella, cheese jerky, and more!

With the rising influx of multi-cuisine influence on both the commercial and non-commercial aspects, the use of cheese has increased exponentially. To cater to these needs, Indian manufacturers have been producing foreign gourmet cheeses in addition to the thousands of tonnes that are being imported. Meanwhile, paneer has dominated the domestic cheese market, thereby towering over the other indigenous cheese varieties that can otherwise be employed in cooking multiple dishes across cuisines.

Here are some of those unsung varieties:

Kalari

If you have been deeming mozzarella essential for a good cheese pull, think again.

Hailing from the Shivalik range of the Himalayas is Kalari, also known as Maish Krej, made from cow or goat’s milk. Its sour and tangy flavour along with the dense and stretchy texture is achieved by curdling sour milk with churned full-fat milk in iron pots. The solid part of this mixture is then flattened by hand and is allowed to cool down. The leftover whey is used to produce another type of indigenous cheese known as Qudam.

When the temperature drops in the Himalayan districts, the streets become fragrant with Kalari cheese being sauteed in its fat. It is then served with salt and chilli powder or is sandwiched between bread. It is also commonly used at multi-cuisine restaurants. Unfortunately, its prevalence ends in those very districts, while the rest of India continues to use its Italian cousin.

Qudam

Qudam, also known as Kudhan, is traditionally made from the leftover Kalari whey. While Kalari is abundantly available on the streets of Kashmir, Qudam is tucked away in the interior parts of the valley. This protein-rich, pungent cheese is produced by the Gujjar community in Kashmir. Despite its hard and crumbly texture, it tastes pleasant and has a long shelf-life.

While Qudam finds a place in the traditional foods of the Gujjar tribes, it does not have any demand outside the community. Further, it is unpopular within the state itself and not many chefs have popularised the use of Qudam in contemporary cuisines.

Chhurpi

Does the idea of a cheese cube being a chewing gum sound absurd? At an altitude of 16,000 feet in the Himalayas, cheese can be chewed on for hours!

Chhurpi, a cheese variety made using buttermilk, originates from regions like Darjeeling, Sikkim, Nepal, and Tibet. While several households practice the habit of producing Chhurpi at home, it is commonly available in the market places as well.

There are two varieties in Chhurpi. The first one is the hard variety that can be chewed like gum. It is akin to cheese jerky and is a good snack for trekkers. The second variety is soft Chhurpi. This variety is a staple for the Sikkimese people. Traditionally, the Sikkimese use this soft variety in almost all their dishes — from vegetables to momos and chutneys.

Sosha

Sosha also originates from the north-eastern belt — Sikkim, Nepal, and Bhutan. It is commonly known as Churu which translates to “spoilt cheese.” Although its pungent smell and faded bluish-yellow colour are testimonials for its common name, it is not spoilt cheese. Churu shares these characteristic features with the European blue cheese but they are made differently.

While the European blue cheese is made from cow’s milk, Sosha is made by removing the cream that forms on top of goat or yak’s milk. It is commonly used in curries across the north-eastern states and is even used as a substitute for tomatoes in northern Tibet.

Bandel Cheese

Originating in a Portuguese colonial settlement in Bengal, Bandel cheese has survived to this day. After curdling and straining milk, the curd is separated from the mixture. To this curd, lemon juice is added to attain Bandel cheese.

This moreish cheese appetises dishes such as pasta, risotto, and salads; but finds no use in a traditional Bengali household’s kitchen. Only one or two producers are actively manufacturing Bandel cheese today and you can buy it in New Market in Kolkata. Its true potential in the domestic and international markets remains untapped to this date, although it does appear on some restaurant menus like Monsoon by Café Lota in New Delhi.

Chhena

Chhena is the base for several Bengali sweets (mishti) including rasagulla and sandesh. It is a widely found cheese variety in Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Chhena’s preparation is very similar to that of paneer’s. The key difference lies in the moisture that is either allowed to be retained or otherwise. If the cheese made from cow or buffalo’s milk with supplements such as lemon juice or vinegar is allowed to retain moisture, it is Chhena. However, if it is set to become firm, it will result in paneer. 

Chhena thus has a minimal shelf life when compared to the other varieties of cheese.

Kalimpong Cheese

From being used in salads, sandwiches, and eggs, to being consumed as a side dish for wine and crackers, Kalimpong cheese from West Bengal is a comprehensive fix. Kalimpong is almost non-fragrant, especially if it hasn’t aged and is derived from cow’s milk.

Topli na paneer

Although it shares a part of its name with the most popular north-Indian cheese variety, it is almost extinct in the country.

The production of topli na paneer is said to have been taught by the Dutch to the Parsi community in Gujarat’s Surat. Unlike most varieties of cheese, this is made by adding enzymes to the thickened milk. This process is commonly known as rennet coagulation of milk. It is served in a leafy basket that is known as topli.

Owing to its soft and delicate texture, it is not cooked in any gravy or dish in Surat. This flavourful cheese is usually consumed without any additional ingredient and is best served as a starter.

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