As middle class children growing up in small town India, we had limited access to cheese. In the initial years I hadn’t even known about the existence of some rancid stuff that people would die for, later it made special appearances in form of paneer (called cottage cheese by the erudite), and amul’s processed cheese that came in blocks in hard to open tin containers. These however were not only hard to source but also far too expensive to be consumed on a regular basis. We ate itsy-bitsy pieces of paneer when guests came over and shards of cheese at richer relatives’ homes. While we quite enjoyed the paneer, the sour, sometimes pungent cheese was hard to like.
Back at home our lives went on oblivious to the absence of either or both.
In late 90s though when cheese spread came to the market, we learnt that it made a great sandwich spread. It was not as pungent as the processed cheese, it did not have to extracted painfully (and sometimes bloodily) from sharp edged tin containers, and it was spreadable. The grandfather ate it on toast since according to him it was healthier than butter (I still don’t know how true that is). We tried it too. It went well on a un-toasted slice — you didn’t have to wait for it to soften or pit it in clumps (like butter), and was great for tiffin. It was best when used as a sandwich spread though: creamy and fatty, and yet not too oily like the butter. It held the tomato and onion together and gave a great texture to it. But, it was also expensive — and was rationed like all indulgent things back then.
This is when I learnt the hack of making my own cheese. Okay, not making it but replicating the cheesy flavours in the kitchen at zero cost. The recipe, that came from an aunt, was simple. You take some malai, mix it with a bit if Pou Chung chilli sauce and whip it together, then you use this mixture instead of cheese anywhere you like. With both these things always at hand I had a field day in the kitchen. The mix went up on pizza and sandwiches, inside cutlets and bread rolls. Whenever you craved umami or spice, you whipped something up with tomato, onion, and homemade cheese. You took it to school, and feed it to guests, but most of all you made this for yourself. This went on for years.
Wealth and exposure often snatches the small joys of innocence and austerity. Once I started earning and running my own home,the real cheese came in, as did mayo and all sorts of dressings. I no longer needed the cheese of the poor. Whenever, if at all, I suggested this, husband mocked my small townness, brother dismissed my culinary skills, and I went back to happily eating fat laden, preservative filled stuff from plastic bottles like rich people did.
Today, I wanted to eat something nice – spicy and umami, crisp and bitey and somehow I was reminded of this. I ran home from yoga – that’s where I think of food most ironically – and quickly assembled a sandwhich. It helped that I had Pou Chung sauce, which I carry from Tata or Lucknow or Calcutta with me because in this huge megapolis I never find it. I cut some mushroom and onion, added a lot of green chilli, a dash of pepper and stuffed the good old white bread (yes! judge me for that). I grilled it the old fashioned way too — with refined oil on a tawa. Coffee came from Spain. Plate from Ikea and the cup from Vietnam. Bedsheet, if you must know, from Surajkund craft fair. The result was an immensely gratifying sandwich which had burnt my intestines yet soothed my anxious soul.
Here is the recipe if you want to try this sandwich at home. Makes two.
Sliced bread: white, brown, pink, yellow — whatever you fancy.
Malai (not cream): Two teaspoons
Pou Chung Green Chilli Sauce ( I cannot guarantee same results with another sauce)
Onion, capsicum, mushroom, tomato, green chilli: Chopped and in ratios you prefer.
Pepper and salt: To taste.
Method: Just mix all ingredients in a bowl, and slap between sliced bread. You can grill it with butter in a sandwich toaster (but the malai may melt and leak!). I do it on a griddle or a tawa. Cook until nice and crisp. Eat with more Pou Chung and hot coffee.
And yes, tell me how it was.