In the markets of Sikkim, it is common to see cubes of cheese, strung together by twine, hanging in roadside shops. Yellow and hard, the cheese called chhurpi is a popular snack in the region, chewed and relished for long. But in other parts of India, it is barely known.
Such has been the dominance of paneer in India’s cheese landscape that other native cheeses rarely find a mention outside of the state they are produced in. It is indeed easier to get camembert from Denmark at a supermarket in Mumbai than it is to get Kalari from Kashmir.
Made with different varieties of milk, eaten as a snack or used as flavouring, here are a few native Indian cheeses that reflect the traditions of the region they come from.
Kalari, also known as milk chapatti or maish krej, is made from cow or goat milk by the nomadic Gujjar-Bakarwal community of Jammu and Kashmir. Chris Zandee, the founder of Himalayan Products, a fair trade business in Kashmir that makes artisanal cheese, including kalari, says that the mozzarella-like cheese likely “came from Central Asia”.
Come winter, thick chapati-sized discs of milky-white kalari browning and crisping on large griddles are a common sight in the state. The dense, stretchy cheese with a slightly sour taste is popular as the street snack kalari kulcha: sautéed in its fat, it is placed between two soft buns and served with sweet and spicy chutney. It can also be eaten on its own – pan-fried and served with a sprinkling of salt and chilli powder.
Another cheese made by the Gujjar-Bakarwal community is qudam. Also called kudhan, it is prepared from goat’s milk, and is rubbery and crumbly in texture. Unlike kalari, it is rarely seen on the streets. “It doesn’t travel outside the Gujjar community at all,” said Zandee, who makes qudam only on order since it is a harder, more pungent cheese with not many takers. “It is somewhat like cottage cheese [and is] made from the whey leftovers [from making] kalari. It is left to dry using salt and is not stretchy like kalari.” The dried cheese, eaten as it is, has a longer shelf life and works as a source of protein during winters.
Churu is a staple in Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan, where it is called datshi. It made its way to India from Tibet. The pungent churu or shosha is made from the cream and skin that forms on top of the milk from yak or goat. It has been compared to stinky European cheeses like blue cheese and Limburger. The word churu means spoiled cheese in Nepali. According to Rinjin Dorje, author of Food in Tibetan Life, since tomatoes are mostly found in the southern parts of Tibet, churu was used there as a substitute in various dishes. In Sikkim, it is commonly used in beef stews, while the popular Bhutanese curry, ema datshi, consists mostly of chillies and melted churu.
Originating in Nepal and Bhutan, chhurpi is made from boiled buttermilk. It is similar to the Italian ricotta cheese in its soft form. Its more popular version is when it is pressed and dry-aged. In the Essential North-East Cookbook, Hoihnu Hauzel writes that chhurpi adds flavour to the daily diet of a Sikkimese household: “It’s their all-time favourite accompaniment that every home lovingly stocks. Even those who are too busy to get into the process of making chhurpi, make sure they keep reserves tucked away somewhere in the corners of their kitchens.” Fermenting seasonal vegetables and dairy products is a popular practice in this region to ensure they last the winter. The soft chhurpi, an excellent source of protein, is used as a stuffing in momos, to make chutneys creamier, and in salads and vegetable dishes. The dried, chewy chhurpi, among the hardest cheeses in the world, is a common snack, popped into the mouth and chewed for a long time, especially by the herders in the region.
Topli nu paneer
Though it shares the name with the ubiquitous North Indian cottage cheese, the Parsi topli nu paneer is different in many ways. Delna Tamboly, a Parsi home chef in Mumbai, says the process of cheese-making is believed to have been introduced to the Parsi community in Surat, Gujarat, by the Dutch. The city is still home to some of the best topli nu paneer, also known as Surti paneer, in the country. Made using coagulated milk curdled using rennet instead of split milk, it is a velvety soft cheese, almost creamy in texture and consistency. Traditionally, the milk solids, separated from the whey, are set in baskets, or toplis, and resemble fresh mozzarella balls. Once an essential part of Parsi wedding menus, topli nu paneer is hardly found in the market anymore. Tamboly learnt how to make the cheese from her mother-in-law, who had picked up the skill from her neighbour. Tamboly says the only way to eat topli nu paneer is straight out of a bowl with a spoon without any accompaniments or flavouring. “It is too delicate to be cooked in any sauce or gravy,” she said. “It has a delightful, delicate salty taste that comes from the whey it is preserved in.” At the Mumbai restaurant Bombay Canteen, a large creamy dollop of topli nu paneer is served on top of their maa ki daal.