Tag Archives: Cheese

Grilled Cheese

P came back from Nepal on Saturday (hurray!), and brought lots of wedding related goodies, which I’ll blog about at another time. However instead I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about grilled cheese sandwiches.

An American friend of ours is having a dinner gathering tonight, and on the menu is grilled cheese. P said, “Do people really eat grilled cheese… for dinner?”

Cheese is not very high on the Asian list of tasty foods (South or East, unless you count all the milk-cheese related products consumed in Mongolia, but those cheeses are decidedly a whole different category). Although I think P has grown an appreciation for (Western style) cheese over time having been exposed to lots of varities of cheese through me and my family (hard cheese, soft cheese, moldy cheese, smelly cheese– give me a cheese platter as an hors d’oeuvre any day!), he is still not big into cheese sauces, mac and cheese, or cheese as a main course. Hence grilled cheese sandwiches (to him) just sound a bit unfilling and perhaps unappetizing.

I haven’t had a grilled cheese in ages, so I’m pretty excited. I guess that is one of the perks of living with someone from a different culture– since you eat a lot of different kinds of foods something a local would consider relatively mundane and boring all of a sudden becomes exciting and different.

It reminds me of the semester I spent in India. I was living with a group of American students, but since we stayed in homestay families, guest houses (when traveling), and ashrams (on one particularly colorful field trip), we generally ate a lot of Indian food. But after weeks of daal, curry, roti, and rice, many of our American palates began craving American foods. One food that really helped with nostalgia was what our Indian cooks were calling “cheese toast.”

It started while we were taking Hindi language classes in Mussorie, Uttaranchal. We would spend the morning walking up the steep (crazy steep!) hill station roads to our language class, spend the entire morning working on language acquisition  skills, and then head back down the hill to the guest house for lunch. It was the end of the rainy season, and it was often pouring and damp, and heavy rain frequently knocked out the electricity. “Cheese toast” (and  soup) day was enough of a pick-me-up to send us careening down the slippery hill after class fighting to be the first person in line for the grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches.

After a while we found that “cheese toast” was often found on various menus as we traveled across India, particularly in touristy cafes (not that we ate in those cafes all the time– but every now and then). Other Westernized dishes didn’t come out tasting as good– pasta in red sauce, mac and cheese, pizza, but “cheese toast” really hit the spot when the stomach needed a small reminder of home.

I can’t remember the last time I had a grilled cheese sandwich. I hardly ever ate them in the US before I went to India and used it as my “I need a taste from home” meal. But I’m pretty excited to have one tonight.

MMMM… my mouth is watering just thinking about it!

The Yak Cheese That Keeps on Giving

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.”

Label from AS and N's bag of churpi. I like that it is described in English as "cheese candy." Rock hard cheese candy sounds so appetizing.

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.

Chunks of churpi...

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.