Whenever my family travels overseas, there’s usually one request on the list of things to buy — cheese.
To celebrate the arrival of these milky wonders, we throw cheese parties. My cousins take pride in setting up mouthwatering platters: The rich wonders of aged cheddar, the subtle beauty of Brie, the nutty goodness of Gouda and the intense flavours of Gorgonzola, all accompanied with crackers, pate and a lot of fermented grape juice.
Perhaps my family’s penchant for cheese comes courtesy of our European heritage (although I’m more inclined to think we need a guilt-free reason to drink a little more of that juice), but the truth is, cheese has never been a part of our Malaysian food heritage and identity. That, however, hasn’t stopped us Malaysians from appreciating one of the world’s most ancient eats. Supermarkets usually display an impressive array of imported cheeses and although the price tags are a little less attractive to the wallet, the fondness for this food is growing.
If putting cheese on everything from roti canai to fried banana fritters isn’t enough of a sign, the growing number of locally produced artisan cheeses sure are.
THE BIG CHEESE
“People are usually very, very surprised when they find out the cheese I sell is locally made,” says owner Annisa Iwan who runs Milky Whey. Since 2012, she has been making and selling her home-made cheeses to friends, and at artisanal bazaars in Kuala Lumpur. “They’re taken aback, yet at the same time, excited that we can actually produce good quality cheese here,” she adds, with a smile.
Australian Shelley Blew of Kinarut Beach Cheese in Sabah understands exactly what Annisa means. Blew, who has been residing in the East Malaysian state for over 30 years, kick-started her cheese-making business a decade ago. “We get a lot of French people staying at Langkah Syabas,” she says, referring to the beach-side resort where her cheese facility is. “And while most people are pleasantly surprised that this cheese is 100 per cent produced in Sabah, the French admit that it’s just as good as what they get back home,” she shares. “Coming from them, that means a lot!” she adds with a hearty laugh.
Artisanal food has been taking Malaysia by storm, but the slow and steady rise of local cheese, as Blew points out, is a result of exposure to cheese cultures in other countries. “From what I’ve observed, Malaysians like cheese, but many consume what I call plastic cheese,” she says of processed cheese. “But now that people are travelling more or studying overseas, they’re exposed to the different kinds of cheeses and how to appreciate them.”
While processed cheese has made its mark in Malaysia thanks to fast-food chains, the kind of cheese Annisa and Blew produce is only just starting to take off. “Initially, only expats bought cheese from me. But now more locals are open to trying locally produced cheese,” she confides, noting that a boom in artisanal cheeses in neighbouring Jakarta is slowly reflecting the changing global palate.
Annisa’s little cheese factory is located on the third floor of her house. Wheels of Jarlsberg, Asiago, Tomme, Tilsit, Harvati, Caerphilly, Morbier and Lancashier sit snug in the refrigerators.
“My house is just full of cheese,” she says, chuckling.
Getting to the point of perfecting the craft, she says, took a lot of time and money. “Making cheese in a tropical country is quite a challenge,” shares Annisa who learnt to pick up cheese making through online forums. “There’s a lot of trial and error, and the most challenging part is maintaining the humidity for the different kinds of cheese.” She now monitors her Milky Whey cheeses through the thermometers in the fridge, checking and changing the humidity levels accordingly.
Sourcing for the milk can also prove to be an obstacle for artisan makers like Annisa. “Personally, as a cheese maker, it’s very important to know where the milk I use is coming from. So for every farm I source milk from, I make a visit to check if the ranches are clean, what the cows are fed and if they’re treated humanely,” she reveals, adding that she adheres to the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) guidelines to produce cheese.
Further up north in Langkawi, cheese maker and owner of Buffalo Park, Taufik Abullah, faces the same challenge. “There’s a huge possibility we won’t be making any cheese this year,” he confides, a hint of frustration in his voice.
Almost half of the 120 milk-producing water buffalos entrusted to the former owner of the farm 10 years ago perished due to neglect. “I cried when I saw the condition of the buffaloes,” says Taufik who took over the farm in February this year. “By now there are supposed to be thousands of buffaloes, but we’re only left with 50.”
He has since been working with the state’s veterinary department, making sure the remaining buffaloes are nursed back to health to produce what his farm is famous for — delectable local mozzarella cheese. The lack of milk supply also means Buffalo Park will see a decline in the production of other favourites like ricotta and cream cheese. “We have enough to make yogurt, but not enough to make cheese.”
Locally-made cheese has a definite future in Malaysian households, so believe Taufik, Annisa and Blew.
“So far, the guests, both local and foreign, have been very fond of what we produce,” says Blew, whose Kinarut Cheese includes cheddar, camembert, brie and their bestselling, feta. But the taste for locally-produced cheese has already gone past the confines of the resort.
At one point, a renowned hotel in KL was also sourcing cheese from them. “As small, artisanal cheese producers, it’s far too expensive to ship our cheese over to KL,” says Blew. She warns that cheese requires additional attention when it comes to storage: It must be kept at the right temperatures to maintain freshness. But for now, Blew is more than happy that five-star hotels and smaller cafes in Kota Kinabalu are open to going local instead of importing cheese.
Former design professional Taufik reveals that the potential lies in how we’re able to see things outside the box. Up until recently, he adds, we’ve been viewing buffaloes as animals that help us in the field. “If you think about it, buffalo milk is really healthy, so technically, we should have been producing mozzarella decades ago.”
Importing milk from places like Australia and New Zealand, he points out, doesn’t make much sense if we have small-farm holders who learn to care for their cattle. “Buffaloes have been in our Asian culture forever so we should start looking at how to really localise cheese from a cultural perspective too.”
There’s no point waiting for another trip abroad. We’ll get our cheese fix right here, in our own backyard.