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The cheese market in India grows in every direction

It may be the stealthiest food boom in recent times.

But, though we don’t talk about it enough, cheese is now flying off the shelves in India. Some estimates say that the cheese market is growing at around 20 per cent per year.


Amul, the unquestioned leader in the segment has seen a growth of 30 per cent — and that is during the lockdown during which, the restaurant and hotel sector was either shut or operating at limited capacity. Amul now has several cheese plants and has just announced an ambitious plan to manufacture buffalo mozzarella, hoping to make India a global hub for mozzarella production.


   If the thought of a cheese boom makes you think of restaurants serving cheese courses or parties at home featuring raclette dinners and cheese boards, think again. Yes, that segment is also growing. But that’s not where the real boom is happening.


   The primary reason for the cheese boom is the ubiquity of cheese in non-traditional foods. A roadside vendor will grate cheese on to a masala omelette. A dosa stall will offer you a cheese dosa. And street food guys will offer you anything you like (even pav bhaji) with cheese!


   The ubiquity of cheese in the fast food sector is relatively new but the marriage of Indian food and cheese has lasted for years. Most tandoori/kebab restaurants have long used cheese in their cooking.


   The Murgh Malai Kebab (a dairy-enriched version of the humble Chicken Tikka) uses cheese in the marinade. Some restaurants even make their mutton seekh kebabs with a little cheese. At ITC’s Peshawari chain, one of the most popular dishes, the Chicken Kadak Seekh uses cheese to enhance its flavour.


   I asked Manjit Gill, my guru on Indian food, why tandoori cooks liked cheese. Manjit’s view is that all chefs like the rich dairy taste of cream in North Indian cooking. Cheese is seen as a way of adding creaminess, animal (dairy) fat and a flavour heft.  Manjit himself is not keen on adding cheese to a Murgh malai tikka but he may be in a minority. All over India, tandoori restaurants are huge consumers of cheese.


   But how did this happen? When the inventors of tandoori chicken left Peshawar to come to Delhi in the 1940s, they did not pack a few cans of Kraft cheese in their bags. Nor was cheese cheap or easily available in India in the 1950s, or even the 1960s.


   So how did tandoori chefs have access to cheese in their kitchens? When did they work out that they could incorporate it into North Indian cooking?


  Manjit thinks that the cheesification of the kebab started in five-star hotels, where chefs had access to ingredients used for Western cuisine. He reckons that some enterprising hotel chef tried putting cheese in his kebabs, found that the results were popular and soon the hotel recipe become the standard version.


"The mozzarella and flavoured cream cheese markets are different from Amul (the giant in the sector) which makes a processed cheese based on Cheddar."

   As tandoori cuisine has become more ubiquitous at restaurants all over India, the popularity of the chicken malai tikka and other kebabs has pushed up the demand for cheese.


   The more recent popularity of cheese in Indian fast food is harder to explain. My theory is that vendors have realised that Indians just love dairy fat. The recipe for pav bhaji, for instance, calls for terrifying quantities of Amul butter. This makes the dish more expensive than say, bhelpuri, but that does not seem to affect the demand for it. Vendors have taken the dairyfication process one step further and begun adding Amul cheese to everything. It probably began in Western India — at such iconic restaurants as Surat’s Bhai Bhai Omelette Centre the cheese is almost as important as the eggs.


   Another contributor to the cheese boom is the pizza sector. Everybody all over India now makes pizza. And a pizza usually needs cheese. Mozzarella, the pizza cheese, has a fresh taste and most of the industrial versions used by the Indian restaurant sector are bland and inoffensive. I will stick my neck out and suggest that the popularity of mozzarella is unrelated to the popularity of normal Amul cheese but probably has something to do with our love for fresh paneer-type cheeses: cottage and cream cheese.


   The one foreign cheese that most middle class Indians like at first taste is Boursin, which is not really a cheese but is a cream cheese favoured with other ingredients (garlic, pepper, etc.)


   Nearly everyone who makes cheese in India now makes some version of Boursin because the market demands it. Some enterprising cheese-makers carry this principle forward. Gourmestan, a popular Mumbai operation, started out making flavoured cream cheeses, then mixed them with non-dairy cream cheese (made from almond milk or soya) and now does a hugely successful range of non-dairy cheese with a variety of interesting flavours.


   The mozzarella and flavoured cream cheese markets are different from Amul (the giant in the sector) which makes a processed cheese based on Cheddar. Processed cheeses are treated with derision in Europe, where they are seen as an American phenomenon which they are: in the early years of the 20th Century, a man called James Kraft invented an industrial process by which cheese could be given a longer shelf-life. It also melted smoothly which made it perfect for cooking.


   By the 1950s, Kraft cheese had spread all over the world and people began associating cheese with thin squares or chunky triangles. The American fast food industry embraced it: the cheese burger is still the most common vehicle for processed cheese.


   But these days, the US processed cheese industry faces a downturn because millennials are turning their backs on processed cheese and demanding real cheese.


   That won’t happen in India for a while but the market for real cheese is growing here too. Amateurs are getting into the business and are making surprising good cheese. I like Spotted Cow made by two brothers in a Mumbai suburb. One of them, Prateeksh Mehra, was a fashion photographer before a passion for cheese led him to make Brie and Camembert at home.


   The cheese turned out so well that the brothers started making them at a small production unit (to artisanal principles), and now demand is such that business has boomed.


   More recently Amit Mittal, who worked for a Swiss company in India, started making such French cheeses as Reblochon, Camembert and Brie at home. He took them to gourmet and farmers markets in Delhi and Gurgaon on weekends and found that his stock soon sold out. His company, Kumaoni Blessings, is still run out of his home but if he finds investors, he hopes to expand.


   And so, the cheese market in India grows in every direction and in every segment.


   Who would have thought it?



Posted On: 20 Mar 2021 11:42 AM
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