There are many wonderful foods that are part of the Indian tradition. But cheese is not one of them. Unlike many other societies that revere milk, India has no history of cheese making. In fact, one view has it that even paneer, that essential component of the vegetarian diet, was introduced to India by Europeans. We refused to split milk, perhaps because of religious reasons and it was only after the Portuguese encouraged us to do so that we were able to make paneer.
All this is a little ironic because India is currently in the midst of a cheese boom. At one level, it is the spread of paneer to every corner of the land.
You could argue that paneer is regarded as an Indian ingredient so its popularity across the nation should not surprise us. But how then, do you explain the craze for processed cheese?
Till about two decades ago, cheese was treated as one of those fancy foreign items that had nothing to do with Indian food. But now I find that thelawallas and dhabas all over the country have gone cheese-mad. They put cheese on egg dishes, they stuff parathas and dosas with it, they serve it on pav and they even make cheese uttapams.
At middle-class homes with school-going children, there is nearly always some processed cheese in the fridge. Often, it is those thin slices of cheese that go into school-lunch sandwiches. Sometimes it is the sort of processed cheese that you can pour over macaroni or spaghetti.
And the fast food industry in India is essentially a menage a’trois of wheat, tomato and cheese. You can’t have a cheese burger of any kind without a slice of processed cheese. A pizza isn’t a pizza without cheese.
But of course, we are still uneasy about real cheese; it is the processed stuff we like. Serve a ripe, smelly Camembert at a restaurant and the guests will look accusingly at the waiter believing that he has done something naughty. Even when real cheeses are served, we prefer relatively bland flavours like Gouda or Edam. Serve a Stilton or a Roquefort and people will nudge each other and whisper “Ismein toh keeda hai.”
So, what’s the difference between processed cheese and real cheese?
Well, it boils down to this – processed cheese is a product that contains cheese but is not necessarily what most Europeans would regard as cheese.
Usually, processed cheese is made by adding other dairy ingredients, emulsifiers, salt, food colour and sometimes even vegetables oils. Once all of these ingredients have been combined to make processed cheese, manufacturers have a product with a long shelf-life, a blander, more easily acceptable taste and – perhaps most importantly for the fast food industry – meltability.
When you melt many real cheeses, the fat solids separate from the protein and you end up with a mess. With processed cheese the melting is flawless and you can cook with it at high temperatures.
Real cheese has been around for millennia but processed cheese was only invented by a Swiss guy in the early years of the 20th century. Shortly afterwards, James Kraft applied for an American patent for processed cheese. And ever since, Kraft has been at the forefront of the processed cheese business.
It was in 1950 that Kraft’s processed cheese became widely available and within a decade, it became part of the American tradition, used in everything from cheese burgers to grilled cheese sandwiches to mac and cheese. Soon, its popularity spread around the world. Welsh rarebit (or rabbit), an ancestor of modern cheese toast, was once made with real cheese. Now, it is more likely to be made with processed cheese.
I have been trying to figure out when Indians fell in love with processed cheese and I think the boom began in the late 1990s. It is tempting to say that a new demographic was introduced to cheese because of the fast food industry and this led to the explosion. I am sure this was part of the story; but I don’t think it was all of it.
Indian chefs had always used processed cheese. That murgh malai tikka you praised for its tenderness, probably had Amul cheese in it. When the processed cheese coated your mouth with dairy fat, you thought that the chicken had a delicious buttery flavour. Actually it was the Amul cheese you were tasting.
All cheese sandwiches at restaurants and all cheese naans owe their flavour to processed cheese. So long before say, McDonald’s or Domino’s got here, we were already familiar with the flavour of processed cheese.
Except that it was Amul cheese, which is saltier and tangier than American processed cheese. And over the years, using its dairy expertise and vast distribution network, Amul flooded the market with its cheese, feeding the craze pretty much on its own.
Soon, large industrial units that made cheese for brands such as Britannia sprang up and competitively priced processed cheese reached every corner of the market. Kraft makes cheese in India (though I gather that supplies have dried up at present) but I always suspect that their Indian cheese tastes more like Amul than it does like American Kraft. (I am not an expert on processed cheese so I could be wrong.)
As processed cheese has caught on, Indians have finally begun to develop a palate for other cheese. There is a Gouda in the market and hotels will offer you nasty Canned Brie and Camembert, but the stuff that gets sent to India is usually bland, odourless and tasteless.
A few weeks ago, a video of an alleged BBC news report on how Domino’s used fake cheese in its pizzas went viral.
The video was a hoax. The BBC clarified it had never done such a report and Domino’s issued a statement saying that its pizzas “have always been made from the best quality real cheese prepared from real milk….”
The video was clearly created to damage Domino’s but it had some impact because most Indians don’t really understand the difference between real cheese and processed cheese. In Italy, artisanal cheese makers will use real cheese but in most of the world, pizza chains use some amount of processed cheese.
There is, however, another cheaper category of processed cheese that is usually used for so-called entry-level pizzas by pizza places all over the country. This is cheese from which the expensive milk fat has been removed and replaced with vegetable fat. The process is similar to the one used by ice cream companies which add cheaper vegetable fat to bump up the taste of their products.
So is this cheese or is it fake cheese?
In America, there are various regulations governing the terms you can use but I don’t think they are very useful to the layman.
Basically, all you need to remember is this – there are thousands of real cheeses all over Europe and America. Many are truly wonderful. But they are nearly all acquired tastes and expensive to make.
And then, there is processed cheese. Yes it is an industrial product popularised around the world by Americans. But the two are different products and should not be confused with each other.
Real cheese is usually the star of the show and is eaten with accompaniments. Processed cheese is usually an ingredient. It isn’t so great on its own but it is hard to beat the flavour it adds to burgers, pizzas, sandwiches, omelettes and a variety of other dishes.
So let’s stop being snobbish or inventing scams. Let’s just enjoy processed cheese for what it is. And let’s admire the skills of the Indian cooks who have taken an unfamiliar ingredient and put it into dosas, uttapams, naans, chicken tikkas, and parathas and God alone knows what else.