Himalayan cheese kalari appeals to tastemakers and patriots alike

Made by semi-nomadic herders, the 'mozzarella of India' is finding favour among cheesemongers

Kalari cheese was traditionally made by semi-nomadic tribes from Jammu and Kashmir in a bid to use leftover milk before it went stale. Photo: Kalpana Sunder
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The mountainous state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India is known for its picturesque valleys, lush pastures and sparkling lakes. Among these, the semi-nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes move with their livestock of cows, goats and sheep, migrating to hilly meadows in the summer and descending to the plains in the harsh winter months.

The community makes its living by selling milk, but often surplus produce would become stale and have to be discarded. In order to avoid wastage, the farmers began making an indigenous cheese called kalari, also known as “maish krej” or “milk chapatti”.

Naturally ripened in the sun, kalari is usually made from full-fat cow or buffalo milk, courtesy of herds that feed on virgin mountain grass and untreated herbs.

“The kalari style of cheese-making is known as a stretched curd cheese process. Fresh curds are cooked in hot whey or water to create the stretchy texture and a product that has a longer shelf life,” explains Aditya Raghavan, a physicist-turned-cheese consultant from Bengaluru.

“There are plenty of stretched curd cheeses across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which vary in size, texture and taste, based on the type of milk used and other factors. Like kalari, many of these cheeses are rare pastoral products. The stretched cheese technique has survived thanks to word of mouth, and knowledge was most likely exchanged through centuries of trading by pastoral tribes across Central Asia.”

Kalari is known for its stretched, stringy texture. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Kalari, which can range from mild and moist to sour and tangy, depending on its age, is a popular street food dish in Jammu and Kashmir. Sometimes fungus grows on the cheese, imparting it with a unique flavour. It is usually pan-fried on a tawa until golden brown, cooking in its own fat, and then served with chilli powder and chutney. Sometimes it is rolled into flatbread kulcha, and served with chopped vegetables, spices and walnut chutney.

“My husband’s grandmother used to make a special breakfast dish with kalari, adding just a little salt and minimum spices,” says Marryam H Reshii, a food critic and writer from Kashmir.

Thanks to its chewy, stringy texture, kalari is called the mozzarella of India by in-the-know consumers. Outside of Jammu and Kashmir, however, this is a rather small group.

Gouda, cheddar, mozzarella, feta. Indian supermarkets are primarily replete with cheeses from the West. Even until a few years ago, it was nearly impossible to find an indigenous cheese on shelves in most parts of the country. That looks set to change as cheesemongers and connoisseurs alike are striving to put the focus on kalari.

Kalari from the Himalayan Cheese Factory. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

When Dutchman Chris Zandee visited Kashmir in 2006, and saw artisans from the local Gujjar and Bakarwal community making kalari, he became determined to make it sustainable and rewarding for the herders, who often lost out on their profit to middlemen.

In 2007, Zandee set up the Himalayan Cheese factory in a rustic cottage in a tiny but lush mountainous village of Pahalgam. The factory currently purchases its milk from up to 100 households dotted around different villages.

Factory manager Gulzar Ahmed tells The National: “We work with Gujjars and Kashmiri farmers, as well as seeking to empower local women. In summer, they make the cheese from cow milk, whereas in the winter, it’s a mix of cow and buffalo milk.

“We pack and freeze the kalari after making it, unlike shepherds who make it to utilise leftover milk and usually sun-dry it. It is then shipped across India to restaurants, hotels and cheese lovers.”

The Himalayan Cheese Factory employs local women from Pahalgam. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

One such cheese enthusiast is Shubham Sharma, a Kashmiri engineer who wanted to introduce more people to the cheese from his home town, as well as encourage its use in more dishes. Alongside two of his childhood friends, Sharma launched a cafe called The Kalari Factory in 2020, in Udhampur, Jammu.

Although the cheese was available in roadside eateries, Sharma reckons no other restaurant or cafe ever offered kalari on its menu before them, even in its home state. “Kalari has become the generic name for cheese in our state. Every region has its unique offering that differs in process and taste. The Kalari cheese from my home town of Udhampur, is the oldest and most popular one.

“All it requires is a little salt, and it can be pan-fried and eaten just like that. We also use it in more than 50 dishes, including pizzas, burgers, momos, sandwiches and wraps.” The Kalari Factory turned out to be such a big hit that the trio opened their second outlet in Jammu city in 2021, and are planning to expand in the coming months.

Though retails shops are still wary of indigenous cheeses, five-star hotels and restaurants are providing a market for it. Many self-help groups in Jammu, too, help market the cheese under the brand name Himalayan Bliss.

Mansi Jasani, a cheesemonger from Mumbai and founder of the artisanal Cheese Collective says: “While kalari was traditionally only consumed in the area it was made in, it is now rising in popularity thanks to the bloggers and chefs making, using and selling it.

“Kalari is truly an Indian cheese, and I am glad it is getting inspiring the pride and love it deserves.”

Updated: August 19, 2022, 6:02 PM