This past week P and I have been watching a few episodes of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern through Netflix before going to bed. The show kind of sucks you in because once you start watching you want to know what other crazy things this guy is going to put in his mouth.
Last night we watched episodes on Japan and Ethiopia. In Japan the host eats a lot of unusual and raw seafood, and while in Ethiopia he ate a lot of meats—raw camel liver, goat organs stuffed in ox intestines, stuff like that. While half the time I was thinking, “Man, how can he eat this stuff?” P was saying, “Hmm, that ox intestines looks pretty good… remember that time I ate camel in Kenya? It was so tasty! We need to go to Okinawa some time, I’d love to try that fish dish he just ate.”
When we finished the Ethiopia episode last night P said, “I should write to this guy and see if he would go with me to Nepal. I’d be happy to take him on a culinary adventure!” and he started brainstorming different Nepali foods he could feed Andrew. I added “churpi” to the list. P said, “That’s not a bizarre food” but yes, yes it is.
I added churpi to my mental list of blog posting topics last weekend when I saw a packet of churpi at AS and N’s house. It is one of those special Himalayan foods (found in Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan) that you don’t find at regular Indian grocery stores, so it usually finds its way to our house in little plastic packages stuffed in the luggage of people traveling back and forth to visit family in Nepal.
Okay, I know what you are thinking, all this build up, but what the heck is “churpi”? According to Wikipedia, churpi is: “a dried smoked cheese… made from the milk of yak… It is prepared in a local dairy or at home from a material extracted out of buttermilk called sergem. The sergem is wrapped in cloth, usually jute bags, and pressed hard to get rid of water. Then, it dries out and becomes similar to cheese. Finally, in this cheese-like stage it is cut into pieces, and hung over the smoke to make it stone hard.”
The emphasis is on the final part… “stone hard.” That is the special characteristic of churpi. It’s cheese that is so dried and smoked it doesn’t have to be refrigerated and could probably last 100 years because it is as hard as rock. The little inch long cube of yak cheese can take hours to chew. You bite it and suck on it and gnaw it for ages, actually I still have trouble believing you can actually ingest it. Of course, P loves it.
Being vegetarian I’ve tried to be more adventurous with non-meat foods because I’ve already limited my culinary choices by so much, so the first time I encountered churpi I was ready to give it a go. I love all kinds of cheese—going to cheese markets in Europe was a heavenly experience—and I eat fresh yak cheese in Nepal, so how different can dried yak cheese be? Well, imagine chewing on a lightly cheesy flavored chunk of hard resin for three hours. That’s kind of what eating churpi is like for me. You chew it, chew it, chew it, chew it, chew it, and then… eventually give up.
But it is one of those foods that is really different, and thus fun to give to unsuspecting victims. I’ve given chunks of churpi to co-workers and American friends to see what their reaction would be. It’s usually the same, “How is this cheese? It’s hard as rock!” One co-worker kept it in his desk for a year, never quite working up the nerve to try it.
It’s not bad, it’s just different. So that is my Nepali recommendation for Mr. Zimmern. If you go to Kathmandu, bring back a packet of churpi. It’s the yak cheese that keeps on giving.