For many of us, cheese is a mainstay of our daily meals, whether in sandwiches, sauce, or even the occasional lazy box of Easy Mac. But for India's food industry, it's the next big frontier.
Cheese has always been off-limits for the Hindu majority in this South Asian nation, due to the fact that it's often made from rennet derived from calf stomachs. These days, vegetarian curdling agents are being used more to make cheese, and that's why Indians are slowly but surely warming up to it.
Cheese production is growing in India at approximately 15 percent per year, according to a report published last year by the US Department of Agriculture. "In response to growing demand driven by India's young demography and increasing urban middle class … demand remains strong as organized retailers, high-end hotels, and restaurants feature these products to aspirational consumers."
Tina Khan, an artisan cheesemaker in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is one of a select few trying to pioneer the product. Unlike many Indians, she's been munching on a wide range of textures and flavors of cheese for decades.
"My sister was a flight attendant, and she would bring home blue cheese, Camembert, the works," she says. "My father loved it. So I was introduced to smelly, stinky cheeses from a very young age."
Khan first got into making her own curds ten years ago, when she and her husband left New Delhi to head up a sustainable farm.
"The plan was to leave the city, to be closer to nature and less dependent on outside resources," says Khan, who was running a cake business back then. "But I was skeptical, just because I didn't know what I was going to do out there. He came up with the idea of making cheese and I said, 'What nonsense! You need a factory to do that.'"
She continues, "But then I did some research and realized this could be a big challenge. And from there on, I began teaching myself."
Khan and her husband Mansoor—a successful Bollywood filmmaker who now writes books about sustainability and the economy—own and run the Acres Wild cheesemaking farm full-time. Located in Coonoor, a town way up in India's magnificent Nilgiris mountains, their farm is where guests come to holiday in rustic bungalows (named Haloumi Room, Colby Cottage, and so on) while also taking cheesemaking courses.
Khan spends much time working one-on-one with students, teaching them all the steps from coagulation to pressing. Afterward, they can take the finished product back home, where it matures for a number of weeks before being ready to feast upon.
Ken Matthew, from India's southernmost state of Kerala, is one of Khan's recent pupils. He got the idea of taking the course after vacationing in Australia's famed wine region, Hunter Valley.
"I used to work in hotel management, and always found it interesting how there's still a very limited exposure to cheese," he says. "Even chefs in India don't get into it. I was so curious about how the ingredients are the same every time, but yet such big changes happen when it comes to flavor."
Acres Wild is home to eight cows, which graze freely on grass around the estate and produce the milk for the cheese. Khan also has a small-scale business, supplying packages of gourmet cheddar, feta, mozzarella, and the like to shops around Coonoor.
She says her cheese sales and interest in the courses have picked up lately, especially since Cheese Slices—an Australian TV series following an artisan cheesemaker—started airing in India a few years ago.
"I started getting phone calls immediately after it came on," she says. "That's compared to in the beginning, when I was doing tasting sessions and people just wouldn't buy anything. Attitudes are changing, but even now what works for the Indian market is cheese they already know. If there's anything, Indians will try milder cheeses and nothing too strong or smelly."
Paneer is the most ubiquitous cheese in India, a staple of Indian curries that's made with acid instead of rennet. But the US report figures that 80 percent of the Indian cheese market is now made up of processed cheese, mostly used by fast food chains for pizza and burgers. Only around 40 to 45 varieties of cheese are available in India, compared to somewhere over 300 in the US.
Acres Wild is one of just a dozen or so companies in India producing cheese. But now you can also count Khan's small band of students, spread out across the country, doing it at home for friends and family.
"People are definitely thinking about how they can do this commercially, because it's a huge market in India right now," she says. "One student told me he wants to have 400 cows."
Matthew, whose only plan is holding a cheese party back home, also says he can see the market exploding—especially as India's middle class, and among them a lot of curious new food lovers, continues to swell.
"We're already getting a lot of cheese from the US, for example," he says. "Over the next five to ten years, I think it's all going to change."