Karachi and the Politics of Imported Cheese

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Cheese? Banned?

Earlier this week, the newly inducted Naya Pakistan Government let slip a bombshell. In order to avoid having to turn to the IMF for a bailout, the Imran Khan-lead government has proposed a ban on imported goods, including cheese. That is, if you go around believing every source. The reports are currently speculative. However, if you’re like me, and many other Karachites, everything I said after ‘cheese’ has melded into background noise.

From Grey's Anatomy Season 14, Episode 20. In this scene, an intoxicated Dr Maggie Pierce talks about her love for cheese.
From Grey’s Anatomy Season 14, Episode 20.

Did they just say they’re going to ban cheese? As in the various delicious forms of coagulated casein? The firm, soft, semi-soft, bleus, washed rinds, brined, alpine and aged cheeses? OH EM BRIE? FOR GOUDA’S SAKE, WHY? Okay Nusair, enough cheesiness. Though, an exaggeration this cheesy outburst is a reflection of what  many karachites are feeling. Including myself.

Well those online in certain food groups at least.

A Cheesy Heart-break

The initial reaction, like mine, was a collective expression of heartbreak. Calling it the need of the hour, one user did just that. Others exclaimed disbelief.I echo that sentiment too. I mean when one eats cheese, one becomes privy to an explosion of flavour. You get notes of bitterness, fruitiness, saltiness and even the foodie favourite, umami.

And that’s scratching the surface.

Similar to the infinite flavours and variations that one can associate with cheese, the application of this food stuff is also seemingly endless. Sticking to what you can get in Karachi though, let me give you an idea. If you remember my list of must-try eateries, I know a thing or two about this.

Cheese and Karachi

Cheese, to top pizza (this is important for later so remember this).

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There are few things as agonising as driving Home while smelling the gently wafting and enticing aroma of a freshly baked pizza. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. That being the knowledge that in ten minutes time, you will have entered a state of pure zen by ways of a few sumptuous bites. That is what happened to me today. My dinner was rightly delayed as I had elected to support a friend at her book launch. By the end, hunger had made its home in my inner workings so stubbornly that I couldn’t wait to get home and order. Thus I commandeered my own car and drove straight to @junaidispizzeria. And I don’t regret it one bit. I ordered 4 slices. Two each of Cheese and Pepperoni. 4 slices for PKR 440, an absolute steal considering the quality of the pizza. Perfectly thin and crispy, and incredibly flavourful. Not overly cheesy but cheesy enough to induce prolonged pangs of euphoria. My one critique would be that the pepperoni pizza needed a bit more pepperoni. Exactly four on each slice does feel incredibly doctored, and that does reduce the duration of the euphoric pangs. Only slightly though because the pizza was utterly delicious! This is without a doubt one of the best Pizzas I’ve had, period. And definitely the best at its price point. Verdict: molto delizioso (definitely the most #pretentious I’ve been while giving a verdict but you have to try it to understand why) Would I go again: YES!

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Cheese, on lasagna

Palak Paneer and Paneer Reshmi Handi have Paneer as a main ingredient. What is paneer? A type of CHEESE!

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Craving for something creamy and delicious? Order our Paneer Reshmi Handi and we promise you won’t regret it! #Repost @thebloggistan with @get_repost ・・・ #paneerreshmihandi by #kababjees paneer reshmi handi consists of boneless chicken in a rich & creamy sauce flavored with coconut & green chili’s If a visitor comes to Karachi and you have to take them to restaurant in the city where would you go ? kababjees(do darya) That’s pretty much the answer everyone would give. Why? Is it because of: * The ambiance or * The food or * The service , the Paneer Reshmi Handi. The one at Kababjees is served in a Handi (claypot) – boneless pieces of tender & juicy chicken in a delicately spiced cream sauce. It’s sinful indulgence especially with some aromatic and crispy garlic naan on the side. @kababjees.karachi @kababjees #karachigram #lahoregram #bloggingtherapist #foodisfuel #foodislife #chatpata #kababjees #reshmihandi #lazeez #dodaryakarachi #chatoray

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Cheese, into and on top of burgers!

 

Cheese, coated and deep-fried!

Cheese on fries.

 

Cheese, in pasta sauces.

 

Cheese, on its own with crackers.

 

The Feta.. I mean Fate of Pizza Joints

You get the idea. And the idea is, cheese gives you happiness. So coming to my long-winded point: Banning cheese is banning happiness. In our mourning of this as-yet unconfirmed, impending apocalypse, a concern is emerging. Should such a ban be enacted, what would become of the many restaurants reliant on imported cheeses? Chief among which were pizza places.

Eventually, that concern turned into a rallying call to arms. People begun posting, however jokingly, for pizza joints to rise up in revolt. Why are they the only ones required to make this sacrifice for the greater good? In all the concern-laced jest, a more serious argument emerged. Is an import ban really necessary or even prudent?

To Ban or Not To Ban

In spite of  our Kollective sadness, it was a pretty even split. For every for, there was an against. No declaration was such that wasn’t faced with opposition. Both case also have valid and valiant arguments in their favour. Though valiance doesn’t always translate to a convincing or compelling argument.

It is heartening to see a renewed sense of patriotism as most against arguments centred around the promotion of local industry. Several people argued that an outright ban on all imports would drive local growth. A demand will need to be met as consumers will be forced to turn towards local products. A growing local demand would inspire local businesses to rise to the challenge. After all, necessity is the mother of invention, as one social media user pointed out.

A Lactose Luxury

Another set of users aimed to call us all out on our excesses. They claimed that we do not need to be spending so much money on unnecessary luxuries. Yes, some people likened imported cheese to luxury. Okay artisanal cheese boards are a thing and are currently the trendy ‘fancy’ party platter option. Let me drop my but here though. The vast majority of the imported cheese is highly processed, supermarket cheeses like packaged, low moisture mozzarella, cheddar and cream cheese. Price points aside, how they translate to a luxury, is a mystery to me.

What is a definite luxury however, is artisanal cheese. Handmade with locally sourced milk. Produced in small batches with incredible attention is detail. And we do have that here. Karacheese and Farmer’s Cheese are two local businesses that do just that, as several users will remind you. They also seemed to believe that these are businesses that can and will rise to meet the newly freed up demand.

An Aged POV

The first major argument against though, seems extremely elitist and jaded to me. Slight disclaimer though, I do agree that yes, the largest local player, Adam’s, provides a subpar product. However, many people presented sweeping generalisations, proclaiming that Pakistan is incapable of meeting quality standards of of foreign manufacturers. The many locally produced foreign brands meticulously made to international quality standards already notwithstanding.

There were better arguments too. For example, granting local companies would inevitably lead to complacency. This wouldn’t apply to smaller, artisanal producers as they don’t compete on scale. This refers more to large players like Adam’s and Deen’s. Imported cheeses are generally of a superior quality then these two local giants. With imports gone, they would only have each other to outcompete. Thus , in spite of scale, quality will suffer. For how long, that is uncertain.

A Cheese By Any Other Maker…?

There were several other points made for against, though they didn’t get the same traction. Some pointed out that certain types of cheeses would need to be imported because of restrictions placed on the production process. The so-called King of Cheeses, Parigiano-Reggiano is an example. This is a name and title that can only legally be given to cheeses made in exactly 5 regions in Italy.

Wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano in the maturation room of a production facility.
Wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano in the maturation room of a production facility.

That cheese is also subject to other regulations as enforced by the European Union. Regulations that can include but are not limited to the feed, the ageing period, the freshness of the milk and the breed of the cows. So yes, while the process can be replicated, it is unlikely to produce a cheese that is exactly the same. Thus, a locally produced, Parmigiano-inspired Pakistani variant of the cheese may end up tasting completely different.

Lactose Lacking

Adding to that was the fact that while Pakistan is the 6th largest milk producer, supply remains erratic and so does the quality. Not only does the quality of milk vary greatly, from region to region but the average quality remains poor. The quality is already insufficient to service the milk industry with UHT milk only making up a small percentage of the market. A market which continues to stagnate. Thus, many don’t feel increased demand for local cheese is wholly viable.

The Elephant Made of Cheese in the Room

I, however, feel, we’re all missing a greater point here.

It’s ironic that is took the deprivation of certain goods and thus by extension, quality of life, for most of us to start thinking about going local. But we are still not addressing the elephant in the room. Both civilians and the government alike. The idea behind restricting imports, firstly, is to improve the balance of trade. Bare with me as my business education is about to shine through.

A Grate Problem

One of the country’s major concerns today is a depleting foreign exchange reserve. While yes, increased imports have contributed to this but a greater contribution is credited to the servicing of debts. Pakistan, has borrowed heavily from all its major allies, the chief being the United States and China. For various reasons, that borrowed money hasn’t and isn’t being correctly invested. What these reasons are, is a separate argument all together. The result though, is a lower than expected payback, thus creating a need to borrow more.

Would limiting imports help in this cause, yes. In essence, we wouldn’t be sending more foreign exchange out of the country, which could thus help service debts. The resultant protectionism is an added benefit. However, there are certain considerations. For example, the consumer goods suggested make up a relatively small contribution of the import bill. More Inelastic commodities control larger pieces of that pie. Crude Oil being the easiest example to give. These commodities are inelastic because of both our dependence on them, and our inability to produce them. Thus banning those would be completely out of the question.

The Cheesy Way Out

As for banning goods that can be made within Pakistan, the full effect of that could take years. Yes, the balance of trade could improve but again, not drastically. Additionally, it could take years before the local industry is able to outcompete foreign players. To me, it seems like a permanent fix to a temporary problem.Though, I do not mean to detract from the problem in any way. I simply want to state that there are  better ways for going about it. Arguing bans though, won’t help you find them.

 

 

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