Paneer and the origin of cheese in India

Few think of paneer as a cheese. Hot, curdled milk masses — the proteins and fats texturing — are pressed together in a cloth producing a smooth white solid that almost everybody in India connects with at some level. I remember the first time, I bought ‘real’ paneer from the Punjab Sind Paneer Centre at Breach Candy in Mumbai. I was an impatient teenager eagerly taking home a block of freshly-cut paneer, to make a quixotic version of makhanwala using kasuri methi and cashew nut paste. The makhanwala turned out pretty average, but the paneer was on point. It had a delicious dairy freshness from the whey that trickled out of it.

In the cheese world, paneer and chhena are classified as direct acid-and-heat coagulated cheeses. Milk is deliberately heated and split, with the action of some acidic ingredient, into curds and whey. This is different from the world of other well known cheeses, like Cheddar or Parmigiano-Reggiano, that are formed by using rennet to coagulate milk into a solid.

What’s the difference?

What’s been brewing of late is the fight over the origin of cheese in India. Back in August 2015, the Odisha government applied for a Geographical Identification (GI) tag for rasgullas, which soon turned into a fight over facts between historians in Odisha and West Bengal. Of course, in only a matter of days, the West Bengal government challenged Odisha’s claim over their beloved rasgulla. Shoaib Daniyal’s Scroll article carefully explained how the Portuguese brought chhena to West Bengal, and how Nobin Chandra Das developed the mighty rasgulla from chhena.

But paneer and chhena are different; conflating their origins and giving the Portuguese credit for bringing cheese to India is quite a leap. Food expert Vikram Doctor recently supported this idea in his cheese-related podcast on Audiomatic.

A complete understanding of dairy traditions all over the subcontinent and Central Asia is necessary to understand the history of cheese — a form of pressed or drained curds brought about by the coagulation of milk proteins — in India.

The yogurt factor

Paneer is a refined product that was developed in Punjab through knowledge from nomadic pastoralists. In Punjab, paneer is made by splitting hot milk with yogurt or buttermilk. Some people also save lactose-rich whey from a previous paneer batch, letting it sour for a week or so before using it as a splitting agent. The use of fermented dairy to split milk and make paneer is a crucial historical point. Lactic acid and other flavour compounds formed during the souring process also lend a richer dairy flavour. This distinct zest cannot be acquired from using vinegar or lemon juice.

Cheese in every culture exists because it is a form of preserved milk. There is a continuous history of cheese-making throughout Central Asia. Nomadic dairy tribes have been living in these regions for several centuries. Had it not been for fermented and preserved dairy products, their efforts of rearing animals for milk would have been futile. A 2013 article in the respected, peer-reviewed science journal Nature says that farming and cattle-herding started some 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, a time when lactose was toxic to adult humans; people would ferment milk to make it edible.

The Pashtuns make a cheese called kadchgall that is yogurt-based and usually dried for longevity. This is similar to kashk found in Turkic countries as well as parts of Mongolia. These cheeses came from a need to preserve fermented milk by drying it out. While they are not acid-coagulated, their existence explains how knowledge of preservation prevailed in these cultures.

Churning butter from yogurt

In Europe, cream is separated from milk using a crankshaft system. By rapidly spinning milk, the centrifugal force pushes out heavier skimmed milk, allowing cream to drip down. Ergo, the importance of cream in European cuisine.

In Central Asia and India, it has always been a common practice to separate butter directly from yogurt. It dates back to mythological stories of a young Krishna stealing butter freshly churned out of yogurt

While there is no mythological account of Krishna eating paneer, pastoralists in Iran and Afghanistan had been noshing on similar products made out of buttermilk: kask, korut and kama are all examples of Iranian pastoral cheeses. Techniques vary, but for the most part, sour buttermilk is heated till it splits into curds and whey. The curds are then either eaten soft or pressed into or dried into solid cakes. The technique of heating and coagulating curds gives credence to the idea that cheeses have existed in the greater Indian context for thousands of years.

We further know that some version of these cheeses made their way through the Northwest frontier to the Himalayas. Chhurpi — made from buttermilk in an identical manner — is found all along the continental divide, specifically in parts of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. The national dish of Bhutan, the iconic ema datshi (a stew of chillis and cheese) employs this variant of cheese.

The hotbed of dairy cultural exchanges was somewhere in the western Himalayas, where Tibetan (Buddhist) pastoralists exchanged notes with their Central Asian (Muslim) counterparts. It is most likely that its in this region, that paneer appeared as a more sophisticated product.

From a taste point of view, none of the buttermilk cheeses are as delicious as a freshly pressed block of paneer; they have a tangy bite thanks to the lactic acid in them, but lack the richness of a full-fat cheese.

Refinement may have come through the desire for a more flavourful product, but it is more likely that it came from a need to increase yield; a practice common in Italy where fresh milk is added to whey while making ricotta. Someone, at some point, realised that if they added fresh milk to heating buttermilk, they would get a richer, more voluminous cheese. While trying to improve the taste, the ratio inverted as it was realised that only about a quarter kilo of sour buttermilk is needed to split a kilo of whole milk to make paneer.

Paneer vs chhena

Until the 1900s, yogurt — something we all take for granted — was only consumed in the Indian subcontinent, parts of Northern Africa, Greece, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. There is the odd exception like skyr, an Icelandic yogurt that is said to have been brought over from Norway some 1,000 years ago.

But yogurt was, notably, never a part of Portuguese history. Queso blanco and queso fresco (Spanish names) however have been part of the culture of people all over the Iberian Peninsula. It is a heat– and acid-

coagulated cheese made by adding vinegar (or lemon juice) and then straining it to yield a soft, pliable, creamy cheese.

Chhena is rightly credited as one such cousin of this cheese, brought by the Portuguese to India. Other such cousins can be found all over South and Central America. Some recipes for the Portuguese queijo fresco (pronounced kay-sho) involve the use of rennet to produce baskets of fresh cheese. This Portuguese influence can again be seen in the making of Dhakai ponir from Dhaka and Surti paneer, also known among Parsis as topli nu panir, in Surat and Mumbai.

On the other hand, paneer evolved as a result of direct influence with Persian cheeses. Perhaps through religious exclusion, or just the idea that split milk is a taboo, it may have not been widespread.

According to the book Technology of Indian Milk Products, texts from the Kushan period mention “the use of solid portion from the mixture of warm milk and curds” to feed warriors, while the thin liquid (whey) would be distributed among the poor people. Given the Kushans period of rule over Central Asia and India, this is quite likely to be a correct interpretation.

Digging deeper, there are other remote cheeses: Kalari for instance, made by the semi-nomadic Gujjars in Kashmir is a ‘stretched curd’ cheese, similar to mozzarella. The Bai people in Yunnan make rushan, another stringy cheese, stretched using long chopsticks.

These mozzarella-like cheeses, made through the coagulation of milk proteins with live enzymes, as opposed to using acid and heat, reveal a far more complex cheese history both in the subcontinent and the surrounding regions.

Traditional paneer differs from chhena not only from its historical origins. With its mild flavours of caramelised lactose and subtle tanginess of lactic acid, it also has a flavour profile that is unique.

Aditya Raghavan spends his time exploring his passions around food, libations and travel. Formerly a physicist, his love for cheese drove him to learn the art of cheese making. He is now a consulting cheese maker with several farms and businesses in North America and India.

Some rare Indian cheeses

Kalari or maish krej is a mozzarella-like cheese made by the semi-nomadic Gujjar tribe of Kashmir.

Kudan is a ricotta-like cheese made by the Gujjars in Kashmir. It is made out of the leftover whey from making kalari.

Churu means spoiled cheese in Nepali. It’s a saltless blue cheese made out of the curds of chhurpi.

Chhurpi is a sour and salt-less Himalayan cheese found in Tibetan communities in Himachal and Ladakh, as well as parts of Sikkim and Nepal. It is made by boiling buttermilk and collecting curds. It is consumed fresh and soft (chuship in Tibetan) or pressed and dried into a hard cheese (churkam in Tibetan).

Topli nu panir — usually found in Parsi weddings — is a jelly-like delicate cheese with a fresh milk-like taste. It is traditionally coagulated using dried chicken gizzards.

Bandel named after Bandel near Kolkata is a small, pressed, medallion of chhena that is salted, smoked and dried to produce a strong-flavoured, smokey cheese.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2021 3:15:14 PM |

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