Chhurpi-the lesser known Himalayan cheese
For all the cheese aficionados, there’s one variety of the Himalayan cheese, Chhurpi, which is not quite famous yet. Chhurpi is essentially an exotic variety of Himalayan cheese, which can be both hard and soft or can be sweet, tangy or bland. Now that’s confusing, right? Well, let me elucidate.
“Cheese- Milk’s leap towards immortality”– Clifton Paul Fadiman.
Found mostly in the Himalayan regions of Sikkim, West Bengal or places where you find Tibetan settlements within India, Nepal and Bhutan, chhurpi is not just another candy or lozenge, it’s a way of life. All along the streets of these places, you can spot numerous shops selling garlands of what look like hardened cheese cubes brown or white in colour. The brown ones are bland and the white ones are sweet in taste. These cheese cubes can be a little tricky for the first timers but once you start biting into it, you gradually start falling for the taste. Well, there’s another Chhurpi that you will mostly see in the local produce markets of these regions. This variety is the softer version of the same cheese but with a tangy taste.
This variety of Chhurpi is found mostly in local markets or makeshift stalls on the way to Sikkim or Bhutan. Neatly packed in broad green leaves or plastic & loosely tied with a jute thread, this variety has a tangy taste and a characteristic pungent smell. It finds its usage in a variety of delectable recipes that are an important part of the Nepali or Bhutanese cuisine.
In Nepali cuisine, chhurpi is used to make achar, dumplings, or eaten with edible ferns called Ningro in the local dialect. The achar is more or less like chutney prepared with finely sliced onions, tomatoes with lots of fiery chillies called dalle khorsani and is used as a side dish. However, in Bhutan Chhurpi is also known as Datshi and is an important ingredient of a dish called Emadatshi, which is a creamy white gravy comprising mainly of cheese (datshi), potatoes and thinly sliced chillies.
Datshi can be made from cow’s, goat’s or yak’s milk. It has a texture similar to Cottage Cheese or Ricotta Cheese. Its characteristic tangy taste is due to the method of preparation which mainly consists of fermentation of raw milk.
In a warm corner of the house, raw milk ferments for a few days. Over the next few days adding fresh milk to the fermented one follows religiously. When the mixture coagulates into curd, a traditional wooden container is where all the churning action happens. This continuous churning of the curd separates the butter on the top.
The next steps comprise of collecting & storing this curd separately. Simultaneously, heating & occasional stirring of the remaining buttermilk over a burner takes place till it comes to a boil to yield the Chhurpi. The butter obtained as a by-product is also sold in the markets, neatly packed in the same kind of leaves that are used to pack the chhurpi. Chhurpi is a rich source of good bacteria for the gut and protein. At higher altitudes or due to landslides, when the availability of fresh vegetables becomes a challenge chhurpi acts a delicious substitute for side dishes in meals.
Read more about my experiences in Bhutan here.
Hardened Cheese or Chhurpi
This hard variety of cheese made from Yak’s milk is also Chhurpi. It can be brown or white in colour. The white ones are sweet in taste and the brown ones are mostly tasteless. However, my personal favourite is the brown variety. Initially one may not like it but once you start biting into it, the flavour gets addictive. It has a grainy texture once bitten into for long and turns whitish exuding the milk from within. It has a smoky flavour due to the method of preparation.
The method of preparation is similar to that of the softer variety with few added steps of preserving and ageing the cheese perfectly. Once the chhurpi extraction from the buttermilk is over, wrapping in jute bags and placing under the weight of large stones follow. The next steps comprise cutting the semi-hardened cheese into long slices or larger cubes. Next in line is drying of these strands by hanging them over ceilings in kitchens just above the traditional stoves, which add the smoky flavour to it. If you check closely, each piece has a darker brown side with imprints of the patterns from jute bags, and sometimes you may find fine jute threads stuck on the surface as well.
Want to know more about Tibetan influence on the cuisine of McLeodganj? Read my blog on the Tibetan gastronomical delights in McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh.
Chhurpi or this Himalayan Cheese is highly popular among hikers as an ideal tidbit that can help you climb better and keep you warm at higher altitudes. The Chhurpi sticks are also popular as pet chews for teething puppies and kittens.
Chhurpi for me equates to nostalgia. Growing up in Gangtok, chhurpi was an inseparable part of my life. I loved eating it almost every day on the way to school or back home. Momos always taste better with chhurpi ko achar. Therefore, after leaving home for higher studies I always made sure I carried back enough stock of chhurpi. Now that you know what those garlands of small cubes are, don’t hesitate to go ahead and taste them while travelling in these regions. Happy travelling!