How can 39 million buffalo be wrong?

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.”

Since Malik started making mozzarella, India has attracted several other cheesemakers, such as 27-year-old Italian Giuseppe Mozzillo, who runs Haryana-based Exito Gourmet. Mozzillo is still using cow's milk for his cheeses, but he is keen to switch to buffalo as soon as he can develop his supply chain, since buffalo mozzarella sells for about twice as much as cow milk cheese. Flanders Dairy, which operates a farm on the outskirts of Delhi not far from Mozzillo's, also produces bonconcini and Italian mozzarella. Even the Gujarat-based cooperative dairy giant Amul — a milk monolith that generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue — has dipped a toe into the water, making a bargain-basement mozzarella it markets as “pizza cheese.”

Their interest isn't hard to explain. Although there are big challenges to be overcome, the potential for Indian mozzarella is enormous. India produces about 100 million tons of milk a year, of which about 55 percent comes from the country's 40 million buffalo, according to the Animal Production and Health Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Along with the export market, there's also a fast-growing domestic market for mozzarella and other cheeses. Over the past year or two, domestic cheesemakers like Flanders and Poshtick Foods — which operates a chain of Passion Cheese outlets — have found that their niche is expanding with the proliferation of local food boutiques and foreign specialty shops like Le Marche (a subsidiary of French retail group Geant Hypermarket) as well as the mushrooming of high-end hotels and restaurants.

Meanwhile, the general shortage of buffalo milk has compelled so many of the world's mozzarella makers to use sheep's or cow's milk that the Italian region most famous for its production sought and earned “Protection Designation of Origin” status — making Campania the Champagne of mozzarella — under European Union rules in 1993. India has already begun to put pressure on the EU to remove non-tariff barriers to its agricultural products in exchange for access to its own enormous, fast-growing market. But there soon may be an even more compelling reason for the world to sample India's buffalo mozzarella.

“If you go around the south of Italy, you'll see very few buffaloes,” said Sunil Bhu, who runs Flanders Dairy. “But buffalo mozzarella seems to be sold from Italy all over the world. It's a big question mark.”