Cheese lovers might assume that cheese is popular throughout the world, but that’s not entirely true. It’s a little hard to imagine, but in many Asian countries, cheese is not a food with much cultural or culinary significance.
In places like China for example, milk and dairy products have been historically quite rare. There are many reasons for this, including poor climate, storage and transportation problems, and a high rate of lactose intolerance.
As times, tastes, and technology change however, the cheese market in Asia is beginning to grow. Some day you just might taste a delicious semi-soft cheese imported from Sri Lanka, Thailand, or Singapore. But for now, let’s enjoy some interesting varieties from current and notable Asian cheese-producing countries, including India and the Philippines.
Whether made from yak’s milk, enjoyed fresh, or blended into sweetmeats and confections, the cheeses of Asia may be few, but they are wonderfully unique.
Bandel (Bandal): This soft, salted, unripened cheese comes from Bandel, the same-named Portuguese colony located in eastern India. Made from cow’s milk, the curds are separated from the whey using lemon juice. The cheese is then shaped and drained in little baskets and smoked. Bandel is wonderfully aromatic and fresh as it’s sold in circular flats immediately after production.
Paneer (Panir): Perhaps the most well known of all Asian cheeses, Paneer is a traditional, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese commonly used in Indian cuisine, and some Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cuisines as well. Because the cow is sacred to Hindus, the making of Paneer does not involve rennet.
The unaged, acid-set cheese is quick ripened and completely vegetarian. Commonly used in curried dishes or wrapped in dough and fried for snacking, Paneer is a high protein food. With a texture similar to tofu or ricotta, the pressed cheese is an excellent meat substitute and essential to the region’s vegetarian diet.
Sakura: Produced on the island of Hokkaido, this soft cheese is the first widely acclaimed variety from the Asian country of Japan. It even won a gold medal at the Mountain Cheese Olympics in Switzerland, an honour traditionally reserved for cheeses of Swiss, Italian, or French origin. Sakura is creamy white and flavoured with mountain cherry leaves. In fact, the name Sakura translates to “cherry blossom” in Japanese.
Nepal and Tibet
Chhena (Chhana): Found in Nepal, Bangladesh, and neighbouring parts of India, Chhena is a fresh, unripened curd cheese made from cow or water buffalo milk. The acid-coagulated cheese is crafted in process similar to that of Italian ricotta. The result is a very soft and smooth cheese that’s often used for making sweet desserts such as rasgulla, small balls of chhena rolled in semolina and boiled in light sugar syrup.
Ragya Yak: This aged dri’s milk (female yak) cheese is a made in Nepal by Tibetan nomads in collaboration with the Trace Foundation, a private nonprofit organization that promotes the cultural continuity and sustainable development of Tibetan communities in China. Firm and slightly granular, Ragya Yak has a uniform, dense paste with a greenish-yellow colour. It’s mild to medium in strength, with a flavour similar to the goat’s milk Ibores cheese from Spain. Produced from the end of June to early September, this cheese has a mild, nutty aroma and a natural rind that offers just a hint of spice.
Tibet: This semi-hard cheese gets its name from the plateau region of Central Asia where it’s made. Crafted from yak’s milk (which is also used to make Tibetan butter) the cheese is molded, pressed, and dried in the natural wind and sun. It has a very strong taste.
Kesong Puti: Also known as Filipino cottage cheese, this fresh cheese is made from salt, rennet, and the unskimmed milk of carabao, a domesticated species of Southeast Asian water buffalo. The white, close-curd cheese is soft, salty, and sometimes a bit sour. It originated in the provinces of Laguna, Bulacan, Samar and Cebu and remains popular in those areas as breakfast fare – especially when paired with freshly baked local bread called pan de sal.