Paneer has always been a delicacy within the four walls of my house – no matter which part of the country we are in. Its velvety creaminess always combined perfectly with the masala gravy. For starters, we’d often deep fry it in oil and lose ourselves to an evening of dunking paneer pakodas in my mother’s unnecessarily elaborate mint chutney. Additionally, we’d even stuff it in sandwiches and parathas. The experience was unparalleled and for someone reason, we all looked at paneer like it had descended upon us to save our souls from the everyday monotony of potato and bottle gourd preparations.
That was, of course, until I grew up and stumbled across the English word for paneer – cottage cheese. My entire world turned upside down. Ever since then, I’ve across many people who share a similar experience. For Indians, the concept of ‘cheese’ is a largely western concept – and why wouldn’t it be? Whether it’s Tom & Jerry’s cream-coloured triangular slice with holes or Brooklyn Nine Nine’s cheddar (the dog), cheese is hardly ever as widely portrayed in our own pop culture. One possible (and incorrect, as you’ll find out) argument for this is that India’s cottage cheese can’t compete with the endless list of cheeses that originate from the west – feta, Gouda, blue cheese, Parmesan etc.
But that’s false because India too has its own range of traditional Indian cheeses that are produced across the country. From the hills of Jammu & Kashmir to the culturally rich towns of West Bengal, traditional Indian cheeses come in all shapes and sizes and are consumed in some of the most unique ways too. Read on to find out.
Origin: West Bengal
Originating from an eponymous town of the same name in West Bengal, Bandel would not have existed if it wasn’t for the Portuguese population that came and settled in the area. Known for its really salty flavours and an underlying smokiness, Bandel makes for a perfect bar or evening snack. It is made by separating curd from whey, and then moulded into a flat disc shape. Today, there are two versions of Bandel available in Kolkata’s New Market – one if a browner, smoked one, and the other is a cream-coloured one which is more plain in its taste. The consistency of the cheese is similar to that of feta and it’s best experienced when sprinkled on salads or cooked with pasta.
Process: Curd is first extracted from cow’s milk using acidic ingredients like lemon juice, after which the cheese is then shaped into the desired mould.
Where to buy: Head to Old J Johnson in New Market Kolkata to buy indigenous Bandel.
Origin: Regions of Jammu and Kashmir
Also known as Doodh roti, Kalari is a popular street snack in J&K – discs of kalari are often fried until they’re crisp and golden, and then eaten with lime and chilli. It is made from cow or goat’s milk and is known for its stretch-y texture. Another interesting way to consume kalari is by stuffing it in a kulcha or just by itself with spices and chutneys. It’s often also referred to as the ‘mozzarella of Kashmir’.
Process: A “stretched curd cheese”, kalari is made by heating cow or goat’s milk, coagulating the cheese with lime juice, and then allowing it to be moulded into the disc-like shape. It is then dried for a couple of days before it is ready to consume.
Where to buy: You can order online from Himalayan Cheese. They ship across India.
Made from yak’s milk, Chhurpi is a versatile traditional cheese, that is very similar to Italian ricotta and is often sold on the streets of Sikkim in neatly wrapped leaves. It comes in two varieties of hard and soft. While the soft variety makes for a delicious momo filling, the hard variety is best known for its smoky flavour achieved from hanging over a fireplace. The latter is also known for its chewiness. In fact, it’s also sold as ‘Himalayan dog chews’ in the US and can also be stored and consumed for up to 20 years.
Process: Whey is separated from buttermilk solids to produce curds, which are then dried at room temperature. To prepare hard chhurpi, the cheese is further left to dry under the sun.
Where to buy: You can buy the cheese on Amazon.
Origin: Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan
Even though ‘churu’ directly translates to ‘spoiled cheese’ in Nepali, its aromatic flavours tell a completely different story. Even though the cheese itself is devoid of the salty flavour you might expect, churu’s earthiness is what settles in your heart. This Himalayan cheese is often referred to as ‘datshi’ by the locals, and is similar to many European cheeses like Limburger and blue cheese. According to the author of Food in Tibetan Life Rinjin Dorje, churu was used as a substitute in various dishes of Tibet. In sikkim it is added to beef stews and in Bhutan, it’s used to make the popular Bhutanese curry ema datshi.
Process: It is prepared from the layer of cream found on top of the milk given by yaks or goats.
Origin: Jammu & Kashmir
With its origins deep in the region of Jammu & Kashmir, Qudam is a highly localised cheese that isn’t always available in shops – not even the streets of J&K. It is known for its rubbery, chewiness and is a speciality of the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe in J&K. Compared to other traditional Indian cheeses, Qudam has a surprisingly long shelf life and can most easily be found in the homes of Gujjars. “It doesn’t travel outside the Gujjar community at all,” says Dutchman Chris Zandee who runs Himalayan Cheese, the local cheese factory. It’s texture is very similar to that of cottage cheese, or paneer as we know it.
Process: After the making of kalari cheese, the leftover whey is dried using salt.
Where to buy: Unavailable in shops/online portals.
Origin: Throughout India
Probably one of the most commonly consumed form of cheese, Khoya is produced across the country but not many recognise it as a traditional Indian cheese. Khoya is mostly known as an ingredient for making Indian sweets, or mithai, however it can be used to make savoury dishes as well – giving it the perfect creaminess. Unlike other cheeses, khoya is made of milk and not whey.
Process: As opposed to whey, khoya is made by heating milk in an open iron pan over medium fire. Depending on how much moisture the milk retains, khoya comes in three varieties – batti, chickna and daan-e-daar.
Where to buy: Sweet shops across the country.
VII. Topli Na Paneer
Origin: Parsi community
A parsi version of paneer, Topli Na paneer is often served as a starter at Parsi weddings and is undoubtedly a melt-in-your mouth delicacy with a unique velvety texture. One of India’s culinary treasures that is lesser-known to those outside the community, Topli Na Paneer are stored with utmost care to prevent it from crumbling. It’s also known as Surti paneer and is often an integral part of Parsi legacy wherein the recipe is passed on from one generation to another. The best way to eat surti paneer is directly from the bowl, without any accompaniments.
Process: It is prepared by soaking the paneer in whey and then served in leafy baskets – which is where the name ‘topli’ comes from.
Where to buy: Topli Na Paneer can be bought from various private caterers and Parsi home chefs in Mumbai.
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