Why diary foods are rare in China? A story of Chinese cheese.
China is not keen on dairy foods production and many Chinese people are uncomfortable with the very idea of cheese – so the cheese-loving inhabitants of the south-western province of Yunnan are far from typical.
Yunnan cottage industry is making what local people call “ru bing” or “milk cakes”, but Westerners would call cheese.
Historically, dairy foods have been largely absent from the Chinese diet, and cheese almost unknown.
More recently, when some chefs in eastern China were invited to taste a variety of cheeses, they found them smelly and greasy, and complained of a muttony taste.
And while some chic city-dwellers are beginning to enjoy cheese, in most parts of the country it is still regarded as weird and alien. But in this part of Yunnan, so-called milk cakes are a famous local specialty.
In a quiet village in Lunan County, Luo Wenzhi has a farmhouse.
In her kitchen, Luo Wenzhi strains and boils her milk, and then stirs in some vinegar to make it separate into cloud-like curds in a sea of whey.
She scoops some of the curds into a bowl and hands them to me to eat, still warm from the stove.
They are soft and slightly elastic, with a glorious richness and a delicate flavor.
The product is made in almost exactly the same way as tofu, and can be served just like this, in its whey, with a dash of syrup or a chilli oil sauce.
Luo Wenzhi pours the rest of the curds into a wet cheesecloth, squeezes out the whey and then lays a heavy stone on top so they can settle overnight.
This plain, unsalted cheese is the only kind they make here in Lunan.
In north-western Yunnan, they stretch the warm curds into sheets that are wrapped around sticks and left to dry – known as “ru shan” or “milk fans”, these sheets can be warmed on a grill, spread with rose-petal jam and wrapped around a stick to be eaten like a lollipop.
But these are isolated examples.
In most parts of China, even where people keep cows and goats, locally-made cheese simply does not exist.
The Chinese may be in all other respects the world’s most inventive eaters, but they have paid little attention to the creative possibilities of milk.
Perhaps it is because the soybean and tofu gave them the nutrition offered by dairy foods elsewhere.
But it is also widely believed that the ancient Chinese avoided dairy products because they wanted to draw a line between themselves and the barbarians who roamed the steppes on the borders of the country.
And even if in Yunnan, “milk cake” is regarded as part of a Chinese regional cuisine, there is no escaping the fact that this region is a special case.
The province lies on the fringes of China, its population a hotchpotch of nationalities whose dietary habits are far removed from those of the Han Chinese.
And although Luo Wenzhi’s Han Chinese neighbors also make cheese, she herself is a member of the Yi ethnic minority – a reminder that dairy foods were never really part of the Chinese mainstream.
But if cheese eating still has a whiff of foreignness about it, the way in which it is eaten here is distinctly Chinese.
A farmhouse lunch contains several dishes served with rice, eaten with chopsticks: fermented tofu and pickled radish, cured pork with garlic stems, potato slivers with dried chilli and, of course, cheese.
Some of the cheese is sliced and fried until golden on both sides. The rest Luo Wenzhi cuts into cubes and stir-fried in a wok with some new broad beans.
Stir-fried cheese is something you would only find in China.
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