Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The shepherd’s cheese

The Gujjars of Jammu Kashmir are
 the creators of the soft kaladi
On the green hills in the shadows of the Pir Panjal range, the Gujjars or shepherds have quietly been making something utterly gourmet. The world fashionably calls it artisanal cheese. They simply call it kaladi. So little is known about it beyond these mountains that kaladi could well be the state’s best-kept secret.

I learn about it unexpectedly, in keeping with the tradition of getting some of the best leads on culinary trails from the most improbable sources. On my maiden trip to Jammu aboard the Malwa Express, my co-passenger, a soldier posted on the Indo-Pak border, turns out to be a ready-reckoner on the region’s cuisine. “You have to taste the kaladi, else your trip to Jammu is incomplete,” he insists.

A mere mention of it to my friend PB, a fellow journalist I’m visiting, and she ensures I sample kaladi the local way. “It’s unique to this region. They say it’s like mozzarella, but if you ask me it beats its Italian cousin by miles,” she grins, describing it with a zeal matching the soldier’s, as we drive to the popular eatery Pahalwan’s, established in 1934 and initially a milk shop typical to the hills.

PB asks for kaladi-kulcha, which seems to be the fastest selling item on the evening menu. In appearance, the raw kaladi is a nondescript off-white roundel, with the pungency of ripened cheese. It acquires a whole new meaning, though, when it is slapped on to a tawa, lightly fried till it releases its fat to turn a lovely golden-brown on both sides, placed inside a warm kulcha, seasoned with salt and chillies and served with accompaniments of mint and tamarind chutney. One bite of this deliciousness and I know why this fare is a winner. It’s robust and subtle at the same time: a pillowy-soft kulcha complementing a kaladi that is crisp on the surface but all stringy and molten inside, the mild sweetness of the ghee it’s fried in and finally the dash of spices. The kaladi is also served by itself but the bit of carb (kulcha/ bun) adds to its comfort-food factor.
Pahalwan’s sells around 150 kg of kaladi a day. It’s possible that Jammu and neighbouring districts produce several thousand kilos of this regional favourite, found at almost every street corner. I turn to Pahalwan’s Satpal Abrol for a response. The kaladi, he says, has long been part of these hills and Dogra cuisine. The fact that it was prepared on a small scale in high-altitude pockets limited its presence to the region. “Now it’s commercially made in cities but till a few years back, it was only the Gujjars who’d sell it. Kaladi used to be a summer special, made only when the shepherds ascended to the mountaintops with their herds. They curdled the unsold milk — which didn’t last long in that weather — to make kaladi,” he says.
The Gujjars use rustic pots to make the cheese, shape it by hand and ripen it in the sun on a bed of pine leaves. I recall the soldier telling me Ramnagar in Udhampur district is renowned for its kaladi. Abrol agrees, saying for an authentic taste, one needs to visit a Gujjar kitchen.
Later on a trip to Kashmir, I get a flavour of the original in the picturesque town of Aru, near Pahalgam. I’m sipping kehwa at a tea shop, when I spot a cluster of pheran-clad men scrutinising a pile of pale-cream discs that a Gujjar lady — clad in long shirt and embroidered topi — has pulled out of her cloth bag. “It’s doodh roti,” one of the men tells me as he pays a pittance for 20 pieces. “We call it maish krej in Kashmiri. In Jammu region, it’s known as kaladi,” another chips in. The shape of the Gujjar variety is different but the preparation is similar and so is the manner in which it’s relished by locals. The Gujjars, however, have it the gourmet way: grilled on wood-fire.
Has nobody thought of branding this soft cheese? My question is answered at a foods store in Srinagar, where I discover vacuum-packed kaladi manufactured by a Dutchman settled in Pahalgam.

Published in BLink, The Hindu Business Line. 

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