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Kalari Cheese: The Dogra Delicacy that deserves more attention

By Arka Chakarborty

Cheese is a culinary delight generally associated with the Western countries in modern times. In countries across Europe and North America the craft of making cheese is not only promoted but celebrated and the demand for cheese in the gastronomical market of these countries is massive, to say the least. The trend of applying cheese as an ingredient in both everyday and high profile dishes is only increasing and the popularity of Western cheese has also reached many non- Western countries. Cheese-heavy Western delicacies like pizza have become widely popular in the Indian cityscape in the twenty-first century. Factory-made cheese is sold separately and has a huge demand in Indian markets. However, cheese is not entirely foreign to India. Paneer, also called cottage cheese, is a variety of cheese which has been produced in India for generations and has been consumed widely across the subcontinent. Many believe paneer to be the only indigenous cheese. This too is a false notion. In the hilly regions of Jammu and Kashmir, semi- nomadic herders like the Gujjars have been producing kalari, a type of cheese, using traditional methods for an unrecorded amount of time. Widely relished by the people of Jammu, kalari cheese is now being consumed and promoted in innovative ways and deserves the attention of Indian foodies and food history enthusiasts alike.

Kalari is a type of stretchy cheese with unique texture and taste. There are numerous opinions regarding its place of origin. While some sources claim that kalari cheese originated in the Ramnagar area of Udhampur district in Jammu (Bless My Food By Payal), others claim that the area of origin may have been in Ramnagar, Pancheri, Chenani, Rajouri, Poonch etc (Chakravarty, 2022). Still others opine that kalari originated in the Chenani region adjacent to Pancheri. This group claims that in olden times the Rajas of Chenani especially Raja Kedar Chand supplied large quantities of kalari cheese to Jammu. It is also said that the Kssata Brahmins possess a secret special kalari recipe which is not shared with any other group. These Kasata Brahmins are said to have presented this special kalari dish to the royalty of Chenani and this dish is reported to have been the favorite meal of many Rajas and their guests (Team JV, 2023).

Aditya Raghavan, a physician-turned-cheesemaker, opines that while kalari itself originated in Jammu, the technique for making cheese like this may have travelled to this region from Central Asia hundreds or even thousands of years ago. The semi-nomadic tribal communities traversing the mountainous areas of J&K, according to him, gained this technique from a shared knowledge system. Raghavan draws these conclusions from the fact that similar techniques existed in parts of Central Asia for centuries and types of cheese like the Armenian string cheese were made using these techniques (Mathur, 2022). However, Dr. Lalit Magotra disagrees with Raghavan’s theory, pointing out that if the technique of making kalari cheese had travelled east from Central Asia, then this cheese would also be popular in areas like Pakistan and Afghanistan. He opines that kalari cheese and the technique of making it originated in Jammu and parts of Himachal Pradesh. According to Magotra, this cheese was invented by semi-nomadic tribal pastoralists of J&K who found the kalari cheese to be a useful way of preserving milk while keeping its protein properties intact (Mathur, 2022). Shubham Sharma, the co-founder of the Kalari Café in Udhampur, claims that kalari was invented by the pastoralist groups of J&K who faced difficulty in selling milk to the inhabitants of the plains in the harsh seasons. They supposedly found that unsold milk which often went sour could be turned into cheese and eaten (Chakravarty, 2022).

While there are a few methods of making kalari, the traditional way of preparing it has remained more or less unchanged. Raw (uncooked) milk is put in an iron pot and churned vigorously using a wooden plunger-like tool. After this, sour milk or whey is added to the churned milk. The separated milk solids are then slapped and flipped between the hands of the maker in order to give then the desired shape. This particular process facilitates the casein enzyme within the milk solids to stretch them out. Thereafter, the milk solids are cooled in the iron pot itself before being placed in pine leaves, Fakada leaves or wooden baskets to dry in the sun. Sometimes, the milk solids are placed in doonas i.e. semi-porous bowls made of leaves (Team JV, 2023). After the drying process is completed, what remains of the solids are known as kalari cheese (Pal, 2016). Based on the type of milk used, there are three or four types of kalari. Kalari can be made from the milk of cows, goats or buffaloes. The kalari made from cow’s milk is light yellow in color. However, the kalari prepared from goat’s or buffalo’s milk is white. There are some who make kalari out of buttermilk and this too has a light yellow color. This type of kalari is not that popular in Jammu (Bless My Food By Payal). The price of kalari cheese varies between Rs. 320 and Rs. 450 per kilogram and this variation is based generally on the quality of milk used. Kalari made from cow’s milk generally costs higher due to its superior taste and texture (Mathur, 2022).

Apart from the type of milk used, there are also categories of kalari based on their places of origin. Mainly there are two types of kalari based on this categorization: the ones made in urban areas near Udhampur where women play significant roles are shorter in size. However, kalari made by the Gujjar community in the hilly regions of Jammu and Kashmir are longer and are dark yellow in color. According to Dr. Javaid Rahi, this particular color is due to the use of full fat cow milk. These kalaris are dried until they are quite hard. Then, they are sometimes ground into powder and used by the women of the community to treat their children’s diarrhea (Mathur, 2022).

The shelf-life of a typical batch of kalari cheese is impressive and lasts for a long time without refrigeration during winters. Freshly prepared kalari has a soft texture and mild, milky flavor. However, as time goes on, the texture of the cheese hardens and the taste also becomes tangy. The cheese only becomes unusable when whitish or greenish fungus grows on it (Bless My Food By Payal). Kalari cheese is nutritious and it is healthy if consumed wisely. The cheese is rich in iron, carbohydrates, fat, Vitamins, Phosphorus, Zinc, Magnesium, Potassium and Calcium (Team JV, 2023).

Kalari is generally consumed as a popular street snack. It is sautéed and salted before consumption. Usually no oil or ghee is required to sauté kalaris as the fat contained within released during the heating process is enough for it to be properly cooked. However, some people prefer using butter or ghee to fry it in order to make it more viscous or properly crispy. The ideally cooked kalari has a brownish crispy layer outside but is soft and gooey inside (Team JV, 2023).

The most common way to consume kalari as a snack is through the kalari kulcha. It seems that this now iconic delicacy was first served in the Singh Restaurant of Udhampur (Team JV, 2023). Now, the kalari kulcha is available in eateries ranging from small roadside stalls to high-end restaurants. Kalari cheese is stuffed into freshly baked kulchas (buns) which are then grilled or pan-fried to produce the kalari kulcha. This kulcha is a wonderful combination of textures featuring soft, melted kalari cheese inside and the crispy kulcha outside (Slurrp Desk, 2023).

Nowadays, a number of new recipes with kalari as one of the main ingredients are gaining a lot of attention. Even though the kalari kulcha remains as the most accessible and favorite of many, new dishes like the kalari sandwich, kalari burger, kalari tikki or the kalari paneer kebab are quickly earning the love of kalari connoisseurs. A kalari sandwich is made by placing the kalari between two slices of bakery bread and shallow frying it in the leftover fat of a pan where kalari was sautéed. Kalari burger is a burger where kalari is used as a patty and is placed between two slices of bun, layers of vegetables and coleslaw (Team JV, 2023). Kalari tikkis are creative twists on the traditional potato tikkis. Here, grated kalari cheese is mixed with mashed potatoes, spices and herbs. Then, this mixture is shaped into patties (tikkis) which are shallow fried until golden. In case of kalari paneer kebabs, chunks of kalari cheese are marinated with spices, yoghurt and lemon juice and are then skewered and grilled to perfection (Slurrp Desk, 2023).

Kalari cheese in its many delectable forms is well-loved in Jammu. While it is reported to be not as popular in the Kashmir division of the Union Territory, there are many who enjoy having kalari there as well. In spite of the immense popularity of cheese and cheese-based dishes all over India, this indigenous cheese remains largely unknown outside the J&K UT. There are, however, a number of people and institutions who are working with dedication to change this state of affairs. Himalayan Cheese Factory located in the Pahalgam region of Kashmir purchases milk from the local semi-nomadic herders like the Gujjars and uses it to produce different varieties of kalari and gouda cheese ranging from cumin, mustard, walnut and chilli to black pepper, fenugreek and others. The factory supplies these varieties across various parts of India. Apart from playing a significant role in introducing people outside Jammu and Kashmir to this delicacy, the founder and manager of the factory, namely, Chris Zandee and Ghulam Hassan, have also helped the local herder-pastoralists by assisting them in increasing their total milk production and teaching them how to maintain herd hygiene (Pal, 2016). The Kalari Café of Udhampur, founded by three engineer friends Shubham Sharma, Aman and Sandy, aims to promote local artists and put the kalari cheese on the map (Chakravarty, 2022). Social media is also being utilized to promote and sell kalari. MIRAI-MAIA, an Instagram account founded by Monika Kapoor Sarkhel, promotes and sells products influenced by the heritage of Jammu and has been instrumental in promoting kalari outside the UT (Mathur, 2022).

Kalari cheese is a true hidden gem of the cuisine that Jammu has to offer. Having originated in a remote past that cannot be determined, this indigenous cheese has won the hearts and palates of the people of Jammu. Traditionally consumed as sautéed kalari or kalari kulcha, innovative new dishes like the kalari sandwich, kalari burger, kalari tikki or the kalari paneer kebab have served to increase the appeal of this cheese to potential consumers. While the mouth-watering delicacy is more or less confined in Jammu and Kashmir in terms of popularity, it is clear that the age of social media may see a sharp rise in the popularity of kalari across India and beyond.


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