A traditional product prepared by pastoralists in the highlands of the Eastern Himalayas, chhurpi is a protein-rich cheese with a smoky flavour and hard consistency that gradually becomes chewier the longer you gnaw at it. It is made from the milk produced by chauri – a cross between a male yak and a female cow – and it’s a favourite snack in pockets of eastern India and much of Nepal and Bhutan. People often chew on small cubes of the stuff for hours on end, like a rock-hard bubble gum that slowly softens with time and saliva. The solid snack’s uniquely hard texture is a consequence of the high-altitude climate and the harsh lifestyle of the Himalayas.
One of the unique features of chhurpi is that it has a very low moisture content. This makes it very hard to bite into, but it also helps the cheese stay edible for months, or even years, when fermented for six to 12 months, dried and stored properly in animal skin. In the remote Himalayan highlands, this has made chhurpi particularly desirable, as yak herders have been able to rely on it during long journeys, as well as transport and sell it at markets. Since both fermentation and dehydration extends a food’s shelf life, chhurpi is particularly well suited to high altitudes where there are few fresh supplies and other protein-rich foods. Soft chhurpi, before it is smoked and dried, is often used in curries, soups and pickled along with cucumber and radish, while the hard variety is chewed by itself as a snack.
Not only is chhurpi organic, produced from the finest milk from chauri that exclusively graze on herbs and grass in the high alpine regions, it is also considered quite healthy and nutritious because of its very low fat content and high protein value. And no preservatives or additives are needed when following the ancient preparation method that has been perfected over centuries.
After the cream is removed, the skimmed milk is thoroughly boiled and mixed with whey from previously curdled milk and other acidic agents like lime or citric acid. Cheese curds form almost instantly, coagulating and separating from the clear whey liquid. The solid mass is strained and collected in cotton or jute bags, and the blocks are beaten and pressed tight under big stones or other heavy weights for 24 hours to remove excess water. These solid blocks of cheese are left to ferment for a few days before being cut into rectangular blocks that are dried in the shade and smoked over kitchen fires, giving chhurpi its distinct taste and texture. Properly cured chhurpi will stay edible without becoming mouldy for up to 20 years. However, the longer it is cured, the drier and harder it gets. Chhurpi tastes best when it’s eaten within the first five to six months.