Is cheese popular in India?

Cheese is a beloved food for many around the world, with its creamy texture and salty, savory flavor. However, cheese originated in Europe and is not as deeply rooted in Indian cuisine and culture. This article will explore whether cheese has gained popularity in India in recent years.

Quick summary

– Cheese is not originally from India, having originated in Europe.
– Consumption of cheese in India has traditionally been very low, around 150 grams per person per year compared to over 15 kg per person per year in some Western countries.
– Cheese consumption is growing steadily in India, especially in urban areas and among middle and upper class consumers. However, per capita consumption still remains low compared to Western countries.
– The most popular cheese varieties consumed in India include processed and packaged cheese slices, mozzarella, cheddar, cottage cheese and cream cheese.
– Local Indian cheeses like paneer, chhena and khoa are more common ingredients, especially in North Indian cuisine.
– Rising disposable incomes, growing demand for fast food and pizza, and marketing by cheese manufacturers is increasing the popularity of cheese in India.
– Cheese is also becoming popular as an ingredient in Indian-inspired fusion dishes and fast food.
– Most cheese in India is still imported but local production is increasing. Amul is the leading Indian cheese brand.
– Factors limiting wider cheese adoption include cost, unfamiliarity, perceived lack of compatibility with Indian cuisine, vegetarianism, and ambivalence towards the taste.
– Overall, while cheese is gaining ground, it remains far less popular than in Western cuisine. Traditional dairy like paneer and fresh cheeses still dominate.

Origins of cheese

Cheese originated over 8000 years ago, likely in the Middle East or central Asia when it was discovered that storing and transporting milk could be improved by curdling it. This extended the shelf life of milk and locked in much of its nutrients. Early cheesemaking spread through Europe and different regions developed distinct varieties depending on climate, culture, and food preferences.

Popular European cheeses include cheddar from England, brie and camembert from France, gouda and edam from the Netherlands, parmesan from Italy and swiss cheeses like emmental and gruyere. Europe remains the largest producer and consumer of cheese worldwide today.

Cheesemaking did not originate in India. Milk from cows, buffalos, goats and sheep has been consumed in India since ancient times. However, the hot climate made storage and transport of milk difficult. Moreover, much of the population was lactose intolerant. As a result, most milk was immediately consumed or converted into longer lasting milk products like paneer, ghee, khoa, chaas or chhena. These remained the predominant dairy products in Indian cuisine for centuries.

Traditional role of cheese in Indian cuisine

Compared to milk-based staples like paneer, most European cheeses were largely unknown until the late 20th century. India’s predominantly Hindu and vegetarian culture also did not embrace many European cheeses which used animal rennet in production. Overall, cheese has never been a major part of traditional Indian cuisine.

Even today, actual cheese makes up a very small part of Indian dairy consumption. Per capita cheese consumption in India is around 150 grams per person per year. For comparison, per capita cheese consumption in some major Western countries is:

Country Per capita cheese consumption (kg/person/year)
France 27
Iceland 27
Finland 24
Germany 22
USA 16
UK 10

As these numbers illustrate, cheese consumption in India is miniscule compared to major Western countries, over 100 times lower than the leaders in cheese consumption like France. This reflects the lack of roots for cheese in traditional Indian cuisines.

The most commonly used cheese-like product in Indian cuisine is paneer. Paneer is a fresh, non-aged, non-melting farmer cheese made by curdling hot milk with lemon juice or other acids. It has a crumbly, moist texture and mild flavor. Paneer is easy and inexpensive to make at home. It is a staple ingredient in dishes like saag paneer, palak paneer, paneer tikka masala, and paneer makhani. Paneer thus satisfies the needs for a fresh, mild, soft, white cheese ideal for curries and vegetarian recipes.

Other traditional dairy products like chhena (used in rasgulla and sandesh) and khoa (used in sweets like gulab jamun, peda and more) are made similarly to paneer, by curdling milk and separating the solids. These fresh, unaged cheeses have been sufficient for most culinary needs in India and remain far more popular than European cheeses.

Overall, while milk and milk products play an important role in Indian cuisine, traditional cheese was limited mainly to paneer and other fresh cheeses, rather than developed, aged and ripened European cheeses. Their flavors can seem too pungent, textures too firm, and characters too distinct for traditional Indian palates conditioned to mild paneer.

Arrival of European cheeses

The British influenced Indian cheesemaking during colonial rule, attempting to make English-style cheddar and other cheeses for British residents. However, these failed to displace traditional paneer which was cheaper and better suited Indian tastes.

After independence, India imposed high tariffs on imported food including cheese to boost domestic production under a policy of self-sufficiency. So access to imported European cheeses was limited until the 1990s when India began trade liberalization. With rising foreign investment and exposure to Western food culture, a range of imported cheeses slowly became more available in India.

Though prices remain high, cheeses like cheddar, mozzarella, emmental, gouda, feta, parmesan, ricotta and more can now be found in stores and restaurants catering to cosmopolitan upper and middle class Indian consumers in the cities. Global pizza and fast food chains have also increased mozzarella consumption.

Domestic cheese production

Alongside imports, local cheese production has also grown in India. Dairy brand Amul pioneered processed cheese manufacturing in the 1960s and remains India’s top cheese producer today. The National Dairy Development Board helped develop other cheese varieties like cheddar, gouda and mozzarella to suit Indian tastes and climates.

Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab lead Indian cheese production, building on their established strength in dairy cooperatives. However, most cheese in India is still made on a small, unorganized scale. India’s total cheese production remains a fraction of major dairy countries. Per capita cheese production in India is less than 250 grams annually compared to over 20 kg in leading producers like France, Germany, USA and Italy.

However, India’s large milk production and low historical cheese consumption means there is great scope for expanding the industry. To encourage this, the Indian government has reduced import duties on cheese-making equipment and allowed greater foreign investment in cold chain infrastructure needed for cheese retail. These policy steps coupled with rising demand are steadily boosting India’s cheese industry.

Rising popularity

Despite its limitations as a traditional ingredient, cheese consumption has been steadily rising over the past two decades, especially in urban regions. Here are some of the main drivers increasing cheese popularity in India:

– **Economic growth:** Rising incomes, an expanding middle class and increasing discretionary spending is driving demand for processed foods like cheese. Cheese remains expensive for lower income groups but is becoming more affordable for middle and high-income urban households.

– **Pizza and fast food:** Cheese is an integral part of most pizzas and fast food sandwich offerings like burgers, which have become immensely popular in Indian cities. Dominos and Pizza Hut alone operate over 1000 locations in India. The rising popularity of dining out in cafes and ordering fast food is a major driver of cheese demand.

– **Modern retail:** Cheese was once hard to find for Indian consumers outside of specialty stores. But modern retail formats like supermarkets, hypermarkets and convenience stores have made cheese far more visible and widely available across urban India.

– **Changing tastes:** Exposure to global food culture is making urban middle-class Indians more amenable to novel flavors and foods like cheese. As lifestyles become more Westernized, cheese is losing some of its cultural unfamiliarity.

– **Fusion cuisine:** Younger generations of Indian cooks and chefs are experimenting with combining Indian and Western ingredients and cooking techniques. This fusion cuisine often uses cheeses like mozzarella, cheddar and ricotta as ingredients in Indian dishes, thus boosting their popularity.

– **Snacking:** Processed cheeses are being positioned for the growing Indian snacking market as convenient, tasty, Western-style treats for school lunchboxes and meals on the go.

– **Tourism and global exposure:** As more Indians travel abroad and are exposed to international food cultures, cheeses that were unknown earlier are seeming more familiar and desirable. Tourist inflows into India reinforce this effect.

These socioeconomic shifts over the past 25 years have created a small but growing market for cheese compared to its previously negligible role in Indian diets.

Popular cheese varieties

The most popular cheese varieties in India currently are:

– **Packaged processed cheese:** Cheap processed cheese slices and spreads are the entry-point into cheese for most Indian consumers. Amul, Britannia and other dairy firms manufacture these using imported ingredients like whey powder combined with vegetable oils to create aproduct that melts easily. They are used in burgers, sandwiches and snacks.

– **Mozzarella:** Fresh mozzarella and pizza-style mozzarella account for over half of India’scheese consumption driven by rising pizza demand. Most mozzarella is imported but local production is increasing. Mozzarella is also used in Indian-inspired dishes and snacks.

– **Cheddar:** A semi-hard cow’s milk cheese, cheddar is one of the most widely available and consumed cheeses in urban grocery stores thanks to its versatility and popularity on global fast food menus. Mild Indian-made cheddar caters to local palates.

– **Cream cheese:** Light and fresh cream cheese has become popular as a breakfast item and baking ingredient among India’s English-speaking upper class in cities, replacing heavier Indian dairy options. Locally produced versions are also emerging.

– **Feta:** Crumbled feta is gaining popularity in salads and pasta dishes at upscale urban restaurants. Indian versions replicate feta’s signature salty, tangy flavor profile.

– **Parmesan:** Though expensive, grated parmesan sees growing use for coating pizza, pasta, salads and more at high-end establishments as it captures the umami flavors Indians love.

– **Cottage and ricotta cheese:** Fresh, mild and creamy cheeses like cottage and ricotta appeal to health-conscious urban consumers as salad toppings, dips, spreads and breakfast items. Locally made versions are common.

Processed cheeses are by far the most widely consumed, but natural cheeses are making slow but steady inroads with middle and upper-class Indians exposed to global food trends.

Limitations and challenges

Despite rising popularity of cheese among some segments of Indian society, it still faces major challenges and limitations preventing wider adoption:

– **Cost:** Cheese, especially imported cheese, remains expensive for the average Indian consumer. Paneer is far cheaper and satisfies budgets better.

– **Unfamiliarity:** For many Indians cheese is still a very novel and unfamiliar food. Traditional dairy preferences dominate.

– **Lactose intolerance:** Much of the population is mildly lactose intolerant, limiting cheese demand. Fresh paneer is easier to digest.

– **Religious beliefs:** Most cheeses use animal rennet which goes against vegetarian Hindu beliefs. Pure vegetarian cheeses face acceptability issues.

– **Supply limitations:** Reliable, nationwide cold supply chains required for natural cheese retail are still being developed in India. This affects availability.

– **Perceived mismatch:** The tastes, textures and pronounced flavors of aged European cheeses are not considered compatible ingredients for traditional Indian cuisine by many cooks and eaters. Paneer is preferred.

– **Ambivalence to cheese flavor:** Indian dairy tastes tend towards fresh and mild like paneer. Aged cheese flavors are too pungent for many Indian palates conditioned differently.

Overcoming these barriers will take time. While demand is rising among urban, cosmopolitan consumers, traditional dairy preferences and cuisine patterns still reign supreme across much of India.

Future outlook

– Cheese demand in India will continue rising as incomes increase, fast food expands, and urban middle-class consumers become more open to incorporating cheese into both Western-style cuisine and Indian fusion cooking.

– The biggest consumption growth will be in processed and mozzarella cheeses driven by snacking, school lunches and fast food like pizza and burgers. Natural cheese varieties will remain limited to higher-end outlets.

– Domestic production, both organized sector and unorganized small producers, will expand to meet demand and reduce import dependence. But quality and scale issues will remain.

– Paneer and traditional fresh cheeses will continue dominating Indian dairy preferences over European-style cheeses. But in major cities, cheese consumption could evolve to Western levels over the next 2-3 decades.

– Innovative manufacturers will develop more cheese products catering to Indian tastes like spiced paneer cheese and cheese solutions for traditional sweets and snacks.

– Supply chain improvements, lower prices, vegetarian cheeses, increased local production and marketing efforts by dairy firms will help increase acceptability and availability of cheese.

– But cheese is unlikely to ever displace traditional favorites like paneer and fresh chhena from their central role in Indian cuisine. At best it will carve out a moderate niche in urban areas.


Cheese has certainly increased its popularity in India over the past two decades. But it still remains a new, niche, and largely urban food compared to India’s deep roots in fresh, mild cheeses like paneer. While demand will continue growing driven by rising incomes and fast food, various factors from cost to cultural preferences limit how widely cheeses can penetrate Indian palates. Traditional fresh cheeses seem certain to retain their primacy in both home cooking and restaurants representing authentic Indian cuisine. However cheese is likely to make modest but important inroads as an ingredient in fusion food, fast food, and snacking. Its growing presence symbolizes India’s increasing openness to global food influences even as it retains pride in its distinctive dairy heritage centered around paneer and fresh cheeses.

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