Say Cheese and Smile Please
The craft of cheesemaking came to Arunachal Pradesh together with Tibetan Buddhist culture over 2000 years ago. Nomadic herdsmen once stored milk in animal skin bags where it was allowed to ferment, a step in the process which remains very similar today. Raw cow’s milk from animals that graze on pristine pastures and the seasoned hands of cowherds or Brokpas are all that go into the making of ‘Moo Chura’, the ultimate organic cheese.
Many Brokpas are still semi-nomadic, moving with their herd across alpine meadows and taking shelter in simple huts. And the ones who make cheese often do so in cabins that are far away from the nearest village. So we were all the more lucky to find a sedentary Brokpa with a cheesemaking workshop located just one kilometer outside of Sanglem, a tiny hamlet near Shergaon in West Kameng district where he and his family are residents.
We walked for 20 minutes along a footpath that weaved its way through the brush and came out onto a beautiful glade covered in ferns. We spotted a wooden cabin standing on a small rise where the Brokpa was waiting for us.
Thupten Choigey welcomed us warmly into his humble abode. An open hearth took up a large part of the single room where we sat on low stools and were served hot milk that was rich and sweet. Then after drinking his, the Brokpa began his story.
For the better part of his 49 years, Thupten has been herding cows and turning their milk into cheese by a method handed down in his family over the generations. He recalled how earlier, Moo Chura was like currency and was used to barter. And even today, the best cheese is gifted to Lamas as a sign of gratitude for their blessings.
The Brokpa continued, resting his hand on his churn as if for emphasis, telling us that while some now use a machine to make the cheese, Moo Chura made the traditional way is still widely deemed superior. He then described for us in detail how he goes about fermenting, scalding, draining and finally ripening the cheese, showing us all of the various utensils used.
Ultimately, the cheese is wrapped in a skin where it stays for up to two years. But this amount of aging is very rare – because there are so many orders to be filled!
Older Moo Chura is very hard and has the consistency of parmesan. The more aged the cheese, the more odiferous it becomes. It would therefore never be found on a cheese board, but features very prominently in Arunachali cooking.