Cheese (indigenous): India
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Some Indian varieties of cheese
Whether it's Kashmir's kalari or the Parsi topli nu paneer, homegrown cheeses are finding favour with chefs
At Lavaash, the Armenian restaurant in Delhi which is chef Saby's project of passion, a cheese platter is unlike anything you've ever seen before. For starters, it features nolen gur (date palm jaggery) and kasundi (the potent Bengali mustard sauce) but it's not these accompaniments that catch your eye, it's the trio of cheeses -salted Bandel, smoked Bandel and the pungent Kalimpong.
In a world of brie, camembert, emmenthal and gouda, Bandel is a wildcard. A pretty delicious one, if you ask us. A fortuitous product courtesy the Portuguese who made Bandel, a small urban settlement near the river Hooghly, their home. Known for its crumbly, smoky and salty flavour, Bandel was a secret that Kolkata kept to itself, till recently.
India may not be known for its cheesemaking skills -if you don't count paneer -but it does have a few flavourful varieties up its sleeve.
If the smoked, salty Bandel comes from the east, kalari, a staple for Gujjar shepherds near Pahalgam, is from Kashmir. Made from buttermilk, kalari or `maish kraer' as the Kashmiris call it, is eaten fresh, dried and even fried.And thanks to the effort of Chris Zandee, a Dutchman who runs a dairy fir m called Himalayan Cheese in Pahalgam, this low-fat cousin of the mozzarella now makes its way to hotel buffets in Srinagar and to pin codes all over the country through orders placed online.
Indian cheese is also finding favour with chefs like Thomas Zacharias who want to champion the cause of local produce and little-known ingredients. Zacharias, executive chef at The Bombay Canteen, has decided to put topli nu paneer, a Parsi speciality that's supplied by less than five people in Mumbai, on the restaurant's menu. Served mostly at Parsi weddings, and a favourite of many a bawa-bawi, topli nu paneer is a super-light cheese that resembles a burrata, tastes like pannacota but is 100% Indian. “It's s u ch a n u n d e rap p re c i at e d cheese,“ says Zacharias who, after days of trials and taste tests, has decided to top his maa ki daal with topli nu paneer. “In this new dish topli nu paneer replaces butter in the homely dal, thereby adding the much-needed creaminess and fattiness to the dish,“ he adds.
For Saby or Sabyasachi Gorai, who has helmed the kitchens of many celebrated Delhi restaurants, using locally produced cheese was neither a trend that he was following nor an innovation.It was a part of a culinary story he wanted to tell. “My restaurant Lavaash is a story of the Armenian community in Kolkata and their food and culture. I couldn't have used smoked bandel in Italian food at Olive, but it lent itself so easily and beautifully to the idea of Lavaash,“ says Saby. The bandel and its different variants feature in nearly half the dishes on the Lavaash menu.
At Toast & Tonic in Bangalore, the bandel-topped udon often leads to questions to the chef, like `where is the smoky flavour coming from?' “It has evoked a fair amount of curiosity among diners so we always keep a piece of cheese handy to send out to people. Education is an important as pect of Toast & Tonic, because we want people to be familiar with ingredi ents that we're working with,“ says Manu Chandra, chef and partner.
Working with indigenous cheese is not without its fair share of challenges. Problems in the supply chain, lack of information and recipes and, most importantly, lack of awareness, are just some of the issues that they have to deal with. Zandee, who founded Himalayan Cheese eight years ago, feels that lack of knowledge on how to cook it has held many people back from trying out a cheese like kalari even when he tried selling in speciality food stores. “Plus, the perception that if a product is Indian, it must not be good is quite prevalent,“ says Zandee, who loves to eat kalari lightly grilled with chutney .
Lack of recipes using topli nu paneer surprised Zacharias, and a limited supply for a delicate product with a low-shelf life also meant that his experiments had to be well thought out. Chandra points out the lack of a cold chain means that pro duce from one part of the country can very rarely make it to an other part, let alone more restau rants. “Despite the rhetoric, fact of the matter is that this coun try hasn't been able to get a cold chain established. It just makes access to a lot of stuff very difficult,“ he laments.