- Neelima Vallangi
- BBC Travel
Shrouded in a thick veil of gray mist, the remote Himalayan village of Parvathy Kund was almost deserted. One of the few people in sight was an elderly woman sitting in the doorway of a wooden house, who gave my friend and me a toothless smile of welcome.
“Would you like to eat a Chhurpi?” asked the woman my friend, who had just bought a few kilos of local cheese in a factory in front of her house.
“I couldn’t finish chewing that, not even in a year!” he replied with a laugh. After all, Chhurpi is considered the hardest cheese in the world.
A traditional product prepared by herders in the eastern Himalayan highlands, Chhurpi is a cheese rich in protein with a smoky flavor and one hard consistency which gradually becomes more chewy the longer you bite into it.
It is made from the milk produced by the chauri, an animal that is a cross between a male yak and a female cow, and is a favorite snack in parts of eastern India and much of Nepal and Bhutan.
People often chew small cubes of this cheese for hours on end, like rock-hard gum that slowly softens with time and saliva. The exceptionally tough texture of this solid snack is a consequence of the high-altitude climate and harsh Himalayan lifestyle.
The day before, at an altitude of 4,000 meters, high above the village of Parvathy Kund, a Chhurpi maker from nearby Gatlang village named Pasang Darche Tamang patiently churned chauri milk in a makeshift tent perched at the end of a cliff.
Mist crept through the tent opening from the green valley, as relentless rain hit his blue tarp. Smoke from the wood fire filled the tent, where bits of dried meat hung over the cauldron of boiling milk to extend its life in the harsh altitudes of the Himalayas.
He had been turning the handle of the machine that separates the milk from the cream without interruption for more than three hours.
“You need strength,” says Tamang. “Without force, the machine won’t even spin.”
Every morning, Tamang wakes up at 04:00 to start milking his 25 chauris to make Chhurpi. Several yak herders from nearby areas visit Tamang’s shop to deposit fresh milk from their own chauris throughout the day.
Including milk from his herd, Tamang collects more than 300 liters per day, which must become Chhurpi immediately before they spoil.
Culture and livelihood
On the roof of the world, where commercial opportunities and arable land are limited, animal husbandry has been the mainstay of many Himalayan communities for centuries.
According to Mukta Singh Lama Tamang (who has no relation to Pasang), an anthropologist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, the dairy products have been an inseparable part of culture and livelihood of the Himalayas throughout history.
Mukta says that Chhurpi was invented thousands of years ago out of the need to make something productive with extra milk that can no longer be consumed or sold.
One of the unique characteristics of this cheese is that it has a very low moisture content. This makes it very difficult to bite down, but it also helps the cheese stay edible for months, or even years, when it is ferments for six to 12 months, dries and stores properly on the skin of animals.
In the remote Himalayan highlands, this has made the Chhurpi particularly desirable, as yak herders have been able to rely on it during long journeys, as well as transport and sell it in markets.
Since both fermentation and dehydration extend the shelf life of a food, Chhurpi is particularly suitable for high altitudes where there are few fresh supplies and other high protein foods.
The mild Chhurpi, before being smoked and dried, is often used in curries, soups, and pickled alongside cucumber and radish, while the hard variety is chewed alone as a snack.
“It is what we know how to do”
The night before, a few hundred meters below his cheese making shop, three young calves were herded inside Pasang’s small stone shelter while their 25 chauris were tied outside.
Pasang’s father, Finjo, boiled chauri milk on a stove and once it was done, he, Pasang, and Pasang’s uncle drank the hot milk with great pleasure as the flickering flame illuminated the hardened lines on their sunburned faces. .
The three men had been living in the alpine meadows for weeks, grazing the chauris and collecting fresh milk that would become Chhurpi every day. Their lives revolved entirely around their animals.
“We are grateful to have all the chauris and to be able to do Chhurpi because we are illiterate and this is the only way we [nosotros] we can hold on. This is what we know, how to do Chhurpi, and this is how we will survive. Not only can we continue our ancient culture, but this also helps us financially, “explains Pasang.
As the rain outside gathered strength, Finjo recounted his memories of the past: “There were no roads, and we had no provisions to get essential supplies. We only had milk and nothing else. And we used to prepare whatever we could with it, like the Chhurpi and the butter, and we would trade them in nearby villages for rice, cereals, salt and oil. If we needed money, we would go to a bigger market like Trishuli to buy vegetables, which we would then bring back to our village and sell for money. It was difficult. ” .
Despite the fact that the roads now cut through the mountain valleys, life here remains difficult for shepherds like Pasang. He has been raising chauris for approximately 20 years and has spent a considerable part of his life away from his family, staying high in the pastures with his cattle for several months out of the year.
“There is a special type of grass that only grows at this [3500 a 4,000 m] high altitude, called buggi, “he says. Chauris don’t lose weight in winter when they eat buggi. And they produce thicker milk that tastes better when they graze here.”
Healthy and nutritious food
Chhurpi is not only organic, produced from the best chauri milk that is fed exclusively on herbs and grass in the high alpine regions, but is also considered quite healthy and nutritious due to its very low fat content and high protein value. AND no preservatives or additives needed By following the ancient method of preparation that has been perfected over centuries.
Once the cream is removed, the skim milk is fully boiled and mixed with the previously curdled whey and other acidic agents such as lime or citric acid. The cheese curd forms almost instantly, coagulates and separates from the clear whey liquid.
The solid mass is strained and collected in cotton or jute bags, and the blocks are pounded and pressed under large stones or other heavy weights for 24 hours to remove excess water.
These solid blocks of cheese are left ferment for a few days before being cut into rectangular blocks that are dried in the shade and smoked over kitchen fires, giving the Chhurpi its distinctive flavor and texture.
Properly cured Chhurpi will keep edible without mold for up to 20 years. Nevertheless, the more it cures, the drier and harder it becomes. According to Pasang, the Chhurpi it tastes best when eaten within the first five to six months.
Long before visiting Pasang, I once tried to eat a bucket of Chhurpi in Kathmandu, where it is often found in local shops, and calculated how long it would take to have fun. My Nepalese friend devoured a piece in six minutes and 53 seconds, but after working on mine for the same time, my teeth hurt and my Chhurpi didn’t have a scratch.
Mild Chhurpi has a taste similar to Indian cheese paneer raw, but the harder it gets, the more flavor it loses. It is said that when hard it takes between minutes and hours to soften, after which it tastes like asdense milky oil with a smoky flavor as it slowly dissolves.
It’s true that the so-called toughest cheese in the world isn’t to everyone’s taste, and I’ve never been able to bite into one until now, but Nepalese across the country love it.
When I asked Pasang if he liked it, despite all the difficulties involved in doing it, there was a spark in his eyes. “Ekdum!” he replied, the Nepalese word for, “Of course!”
Now you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.