Cheese just wasn’t a thing in my immigrant family’s largely traditional diet. Mom made all our meals, and our diet often reflected her preferences for, knowledge of, and comfort with various ingredients. The only cheese my mother knew of from growing up in middle-class India—aside from paneer, a dense, fresh, unsalted white cheese with a milky flavor, common to South Asian cuisine—was velvety Kraft “cheese product” in signature blue tins. Her well-to-do aunt, who had lived in glittery Hong Kong for decades, would bring it to India when she visited.
Years later, as a new American, I suspect Mom gravitated towards Kraft products because the brand was familiar. Sandwiches, which were for school or for on-the-go, featured processed cheese slices. On road trips to visit family friends in Iowa, Illinois, and Alabama, Mom packed crust-less sandwiches made of buttered white toast, sliced tomatoes, Kraft Singles and her fiery mint-cilantro chutney. Pizza, too, was a favorite food, and when made at home, it featured shredded Kraft cheddar cheese, not mozzarella. When friends visiting from Dubai gifted a small blue tin of “cheese product” to her, Mom transformed it into tea-time cheese pakodas: she cut the cheese into chunks, coated in seasoned batter, and deep-fried them, just as her mother had on many monsoon afternoons.
The most exotic varieties of cheese to be found in the nondescript supermarket in my suburban town were mozzarella—to cater to the area’s large Italian American population—and smoked gouda. The store didn’t have a cheese case or a designated cheesemonger, and we surely didn’t live in a part of the country with a nearby fromagerie. Even if we had, aged cheeses like Manchego and Camembert were well beyond my family’s financial reach in the 1980s.
When I sampled string cheese at school, I begged Mom to tuck servings into my lunch box, without regard for how complete her dislocation must have felt then, faced with children who clamored for the same foods that their “American” classmates consumed. We scanned the dairy case, until my mother found her faithful Kraft products, and I clutched them tightly.
Eventually, as our family became more established in the United States and acquired a certain amount of disposable income to spend on discretionary items, fancy cheese did become a part of our lives. Mom and I, together, ventured into fancier supermarkets and specialty shops, tasting Emmental, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Monterey Jack.
Mom has always been a spectacular cook and her repertoire only expanded as the United States became home. She experimented with new ingredients with incredible courage. There were recipe missteps, as there are for all cooks when using new and unusual ingredients; occasionally using the “wrong” cheese in dishes, such as shredded mozzarella on tacos. Today, Mom blends flavors and ingredients from across her repertoire with confidence. She pairs sharp Vermont cheddar with roasted pears, wilted arugula, and homemade garlic-onion chutney on crusty wholegrain bread. She tosses peaches, cherries, and springy, salty pan-fried Haloumi over a bed of olive oil-drizzled greens. Her favorite snack is Murcia Al Vino, or Drunken Goat, a wine-y cheese, served on water biscuits and topped with berry preserves from her favorite farmer’s market.
Though our diet appears fully acculturated—cheese now appears on our Thanksgiving table—Mom, despite her love of European and American cheeses, still works to maintain our traditional foodways. She could easily purchase paneer from the nearby South Asian grocer, but instead she spends evenings curdling gallons of milk with fresh lime juice and vinegar, pouring the curds and whey into freshly-washed cheesecloths, cutting the paneer into cubes, pan-frying them, and bagging them to store in the freezer.
Now, as an adult, I marvel at her confidence, knowing how unmoored must she have felt as a new bride flung across several seas to join a strange man without the comfort of family, friends, and familiar foods. “I love cheese,” she often says now. “I don’t know how I lived without it.”
Paneer (Indian Cheese) and Bell Pepper Curry
Recipe by Pooja Makhijani
- ½ gallon whole milk
- 4 teaspoons fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Pinch of asafoetida
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 2 medium onions, sliced
- ½-inch piece ginger, grated
- 3-5 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 green chilies, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 4 medium green, red, or orange bell peppers, sliced
- 2 medium tomatoes, diced
- Salt, to taste
- 1 cup of paneer cubes
- fresh cilantro, to serve
- rotis, to serve
Over high heat, bring milk to a rolling boil. Add lime juice and stir.
In about 10 minutes, the milk will begin to curdle and the curds will rise to the top. Turn off the heat, and let the curd and whey mixture rest.
Line a colander with cheesecloth and drain the whey. Gather the cheesecloth tightly around the curds, squeezing them into a firm disc shape.
Still wrapped in the cheesecloth, place the wheel of cheese under a large pot filled with water for 1 to 2 hours to wring out the excess whey and create a firmer cheese.
Cut into cubes.
In a saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. When oil is hot, add cumin seeds and asafoetida. When cumin seeds turn dark brown and begin to release their aroma, add onions. Sauté until translucent, about five minutes.
Add ginger, garlic, and green chilies. Mix and sauté until garlic and ginger turn pink, about three minutes. Season with turmeric powder, coriander powder, and garam masala.
Stir in bell peppers and tomatoes and sauté until the bell pepper is translucent, about five to seven minutes.
Reduce heat and stir in paneer. Cover and cook for about ten minutes, or until paneer softens and absorbs the flavors of the curry.
Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve with rotis.
Grilled Cheese with Pears, Arugula, and Garlic-Onion Chutney
Recipe by Pooja Makhijani
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large onions, roughly chopped
- 2-3 heads of garlic, roasted
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 medium Indian red chili peppers, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 3-5 thin slices fresh pear
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon garlic-onion chutney
- two slices wholegrain bread
- 2 slices sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 handful arugula
In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, saute onions in olive oil until translucent, about five minutes.
Add roasted garlic cloves, bay leaf, and chili peppers and saute until moisture begins to cook off, about 15 minutes.
Add brown sugar and balsamic vinegar cook until the mixture is thick, sticky, and deep golden brown, stirring often, for about 20 minutes.
Allow to cool. Spoon into a sterile jar and allow to “rest” for a few days, so that the flavor can deepen.
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter and sauté the pear until translucent, about 2 minutes. Set aside.
Spread a dollop of chutney on one slice of bread. Lay a slice of cheese on that piece of bread and layer the pear slices and arugula on top. Top with another dollop of chutney and and other slice.
Place the assembled sandwich in a panini press and let the sandwich cook until cheese begins to melt, about 2 minutes. Flip the sandwich carefully, and allow to finish cooking, until the bread is grilled and cheese has completely melted, about another 2 minutes.
Top photo by Emily Nelson – Family photo courtesy of Pooja Makhijani