India is popular for its spicy food, the chicken and other bird dishes, red meat and fish but hardly we talk about our local cheese beyond paneer. If when we talk about paneer, it gets an English name, cottage cheese which has its controversy. I think we should stick to the name “paneer”, simply because when you don’t change the name of parmesan or gouda cheese in English than why treat Indian cheese differently.
Recently, I took a long pending trip to Darjeeling to explore the valley, the tea, and most importantly explore the food of the region including the influence of Nepali, Bhutanese, Tibetan as well other cultures and how it comes together as one. If you go to Darjeeling with a simple mindset to take photos, enjoy the weather and have something local, you would not be able to distinguish between food and dishes of a different culture, background, and influence.
My hosts in Darjeeling were originally from Nepal and they loved their food like connoisseurs. For my host, Bidur dai, potato meant the world. He’d prefer pairing everything with potato. Once active in his work life, is now retired and taking rest from the rat race that for him is already over. Now, he sings beautifully in English, Nepali, and Hindi with his friends using a mobile application. His wife is a teacher in the most popular government schools of Darjeeling and a sweet lady who cooks delicious food and upon knowing that I am in town to only eat and explore the local cuisine, both of them gave me a list of places I must visit and food I must have.
They introduced me to the age-old cheese, Churpi. There are two kinds of churpi, hard and soft. I was aware of the hard ones which interestingly can also be fed to dogs. It is hard and hence both humans and dogs can keep sucking and chewing on it for hours. Hard churpi is brown in color and odorless, and extensively used in the hilly parts to keep the mouth busy so and the body warm. People in Darjeeling also use this cheese instead of supari (betel nut). However, this I knew but I was made aware to the soft churpi which unlike hard ones, is white, doesn’t have a great appetizing smell, at least the smell was not pleasant for some like me coming from the North and not used to it. The soft churpi is tangy and crumbly, can be stored in a cool place for two weeks and I was told if you keep it longer and the flavor and smell only become stronger.
Bidur Dai’s nephew Suryogya who is a local and has finished his studies in culinary arts told me that in Bhutan and Tibet this cheese left to age till the time they get some worm and it tastes much better. I was more than excited to try this worm laden cheese but could not find anything in the local market.
Chhurpi is also known as Durkha which is hardened cheese consumed mainly in the Himalayan region of Nepal and Tibet. The soft variety is prepared out of cow’s milk and the hard variety out of yak’s milk. Chhurpi is made for the separated whey of the buttermilk solids to produce curds similar to Italian Ricotta. These fresh curds are then left to ferment to acquire a bit of tanginess. Soft Durkha or Chhurpi is an excellent source of protein and used as a substitute for vegetables in the mountainous region. Churpi is such an inseparable ingredient that the locals use to make an instant pickle, mix it with ningru, the local green leaf, with meat, curry and or with any and everything that they feel. It is a great source of protein and hence it only makes sense to consume it.
As per cheese.com “hard Durkha or Chhurpi is made out of yak milk. After the curds are cured at room temperature for 2-3 days, the cheese is sliced and left to dry in the sun or dried in the oven on low heat. This type of Chhurpi becomes very hard and lasts for many years. If hard Chhurpi is as old as 4 to 5 years, it is called chhurpupu. If stored properly in yak skin (mongnang), hard Chhurpi can be consumed even for 20 years.” Culturally it is a prestige issue to have old cheese in the house. The older it is, the better it is to show off in the neighborhood. Chhurpupu is also used as a cure for stomach pain. Marchang is one popular dish which is made out of this cheese and can only be found in the Himalayan region by frying chhurpupu in yak ghee and mixed with Kongpu flour or finger millet flour before serving.
Avantika Bhuyan shares her experience with churpi and narrates a very interesting story in The Economic Times which I was not aware at all. “There is a beautiful symphony between the food and the musical tradition among the Brokpa — the pastoral community belonging to the Monpa tribe in Arunachal Pradesh — centered around the churning of the yak milk to yield butter and cheese. According to a paper in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, as members of a household gather around the zopu, or cylindrical milk churner, pulling and pushing it for nearly a thousand times, they sing special churning songs. The rhythm and cadence of the song match the action being carried out. One can recognize which stage the churning is at by the beat of the song. Once the butter is taken out, the Brokpa uses the remaining milk to make a wet cheese called chhurpi.”
Brother and sister in law of Bidur Dai, hosted me one night to make me learn one popular dish from Nepal and in Darjeeling, Ningru with churpi. Ningru is a common fern in Darjeeling and goes very well with churpi cheese. The preparation was simple like drinking a glass of water. The major flavor of the dish comes from the mustard oil, crushed garlic, and churpi cheese. We cooked the fresh ningru leaves for a couple of minutes, the garlic and churpi were added towards the end along with salt and seasoning.
This recipe has to be an age-old one and the flavors of the dish got enhanced to many folds simply because the house I was staying in was almost 150 years old. The wooden floors, the fireplace, and the cemented ceiling were screaming of colonial past but the kitchens smelled like it has only cooked Nepali and a bit of Indian cuisine. It is not only the food the gives an everlasting experience but the people who make these dishes and my host did a fantastic job in creating that experience. Ningru Churpi maybe the common and regular dish for them but it became a novelty to me. Both essential ingredients are rare to find in Delhi. It is this rarity that makes people value and salivates more.