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Indian farmers discover the beauty of mozzarella.
NEW DELHI, India — A few years ago, when my Midwestern parents visited me in India, my mother provided a running commentary as we navigated our way through a long traffic jam on the famous Grand Trunk Road, which runs through Delhi on its way to Peshawar from Bangladesh.
“Water buffalo,” she'd point out. “Another water buffalo ... another water buffalo.”
Uh. Yep. Are we there yet?
Turns out Mom was right. India — the world's largest producer of milk — is home to 70 percent of the world's buffalo. But until recently, the market for milk powder and ghee (clarified butter) was so huge that nobody ever thought of using the country's millions of liters of buffalo milk to make mozzarella di bufala, the glorious cheese for which some would say it was intended.
Now, though, as more Indians learn about Western cuisines and farmers explore the export market as a way to boost their incomes, your insalata caprese may soon come from the land of yoga.
“The total buffalo population in Italy is 300,000 buffaloes,” said Manmohan Malik, managing director of Himachal Pradesh-based food processing company Himalaya International Ltd. India has 39 million.
Three years ago, Malik sensed an opportunity for Indian producers. After discovering from the National Dairy Research Institute that India's buffalo are the same variety as those that Italy has made famous for mozzarella di bufala, Malik pumped $2.5 million into a cheese-making project that he soon learned would require a nearly complete transformation of the processes used by local dairy farmers.
“We put up a big project, but we hit roadblocks in terms of the quality of milk available, and a lack of infrastructure,” Malik said.
The company had to invest in chilling systems, collection centers and training for its dairy farmer associates to ensure it got unadulterated, hygienic buffalo milk with the 4 percent-plus protein required to make top quality mozzarella.
“We are crossing the major hurdles in developing the proper milk system,” said Malik. “We realized that is the reason that more companies haven't ventured into this area — because the milk quality in India needs a big improvement.”
Nevertheless, today, with the help of Italian cheese expert Raffaele Cioffi, Himalaya International produces about $1.5 million worth of buffalo mozzarella annually, or about 5 tons a week. Most of that quantity is exported to the U.S. as frozen curd, then stretched at a Pennsylvania-based plant operated by Malik's joint venture partner. Shipping frozen curd from India is much cheaper than flying fresh mozzarella from Italy, and once the curds are thawed and stretched the resulting cheese is almost identical in quality. So India's export product can compete against not only America's domestic producers, but against the best Italy has to offer, Malik says. Top chefs (and Italians) may disagree with that claim, of course. But Himalaya's mozzarella has found a ready market.
“It is a specialty cheese used as fresh mozzarella in caprese and other salads, and by special, high-end pizzerias on the East Coast [of the U.S.],” said Malik. “A lot of Italian restaurants use it.”