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Cheese & Chinese Cuisine?


Richard Kilgore
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Someone ask me this morning if cheese is used in cooking in China, and curiously enough I had been wondering the same thing a few days ago.

So what's the story?

The story is that traditionaly not a lot of dairy products were used in Chinese cuisine, cows/cow products/beef not being a popular agricultural product, while pigs on the other hand, get used from their snouts to their toes.

regards,

trillium

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Most of my Chinese friends thought cheese was a disgusting rotten milk product, when I lived in China. It was almost impossible to find unless imported (ah I had a source of French brie...). There was one rather bland local cheese made in Beijing, like a Babayel (sp?) that managed to stay in business over three years, so I guess they sold enough. It was a relatively new product.

Not everyone I knew was lactose intolerant, contrary to the popular belief that all Chinese are. People just thought that cheese was disgusting, that's all.

On the other hand, tofu, served in all forms, new old, smoked, rotten, molding, and fermented, was always popular. :smile:

I ate it all.

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Part of the answer has to do with the amount of arable land in China. Consider the amount of resources (i.e., grass, water, animal feed) it takes to raise a single cow, compared to a single pig -- and then multiply that by a factor of one hundred.

Northern China is different because the animals used to produce yogurt and whey had wide expanses of land to roam around in. People in that part were more nomadic (i.e. Mongols) and less agriculturally based.

I'm sure the answer is a bit more complex than that summation, but it's good for starters.

Soba

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It is an interesting issue because yoghurt and milk are readily found and often come from Inner Mongolia or the Beijing "suburbs." Yet despite the popularity of these things (and their existence is nothing new), cheese hasn't caught on.

I do know of a friend who adds cheese when making Chinese style curry, it shocked me at first (especially because I found out after eating her curry a number of times).

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I do know of a friend who adds cheese when making Chinese style curry, it shocked me at first (especially because I found out after eating her curry a number of times).

Is the cheese more like Indian style paneer or a Western style cheese? Sounds fascinating. I want to use more cheese in my curries.

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SobaAddict has it right about arable land, etc. What little milk there is in China is traditionally reserved for babies and old people who have problems eating other things.

If you think how long it took for tofu and yogurt to gain widespread acceptance in the US, you will have some idea of the image problem that cheese has in Chinese places. The barrier is especially high for some extreme cases on both sides here---something called stinky tofu on the Chinese side, nowhere near as pungent as Limburger or genuine German Muenster.

Westerners have figured out how to integrate the most bland and generic tofu into some dishes, but they usually have no idea of the huge variety of tofu products available in a Chinatown, or what to do with them.

Dairy products are gaining more acceptance in some Chinese and Southeast Asian places, but I expect cheese to be last in line for this. Former British and French colonies already have a tradition of putting milk and cream in coffee. Ice cream is popular anywhere the weather is hot. During one five year span in Taiwan, I saw yogurt go from "revolting" to "trendy". Cheesecake is popular, and so was something called "cheese cake," meaning a cake with some cheese incorporated into the batter, lending additonal richness to the dessert. Cheese combined with sugar in a pastry is much less likely to be rejected. Think 'cheese danish' or 'cannoli'.

More savory cheese will probably make its first inroads through fast food chains. People in Taiwan liked to try pizza, but routinely questioned the appeal of its rubbery mozzerella. They like going to McDonalds, but I don't know how many of them want a cheeseburger rather than a hamburger.

As it stands now, cheese still seems like something that has spoiled. Cantonese people revel in the fact that the Cantonese phrase for "pig shit" sounds a lot like "chee-sz".

There is another issue here too. Like some French people, some Chinese people are often smugly self-satisfied with the cuisine of their own country and aren't terribly interested in what other countries' cuisines might have to offer. Dairy products have gained more ground in pastries because China already a has a lively pastry tradition. Lack of curiousity and eclecticism will keep cheese on the fringes of Chinese cuisine for quite a while, I think.

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K.C. Chang and Anderson cover this subject in their respective books on Chinese culture.

They note that altho the lactose problem may be a factor, that issue doesn't seem to affect Indians and Central Asians who have the same intolerance. Those peoples simply add the bacteria which neutralizes the problem. Chang talks about milk being used all over the Far East today but "There is still some resistance to rank cheese, which we love, and we were amused to find it considered by our informants as the putrefied mucous discharge of an animal's guts. But, after all, many Westerners resist strong cheeses, too."

Many dairy products were available during the occupations by 'barbarians' from the North, and when they left, the Han Chinese felt that reliance on dairy food would mean reliance on tarde with those 'barbarians'.

Chang mentions the cheese produced AND used in Yunnan Province, but "the technology is probably derived from the Mongols and their followers and concentrated among the Yunnan Muslims~~~~~~~~"

I had read, somewhere else, that altho milk products were available and used during those occupations, ----when those Dynasties were overthrown, cultural superiority stepped in and they rid themseves of those dairy items and their reminder of the foreign influence.

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For drinking at least, milk and milk products are widely available in China and are hugely popular, be it in UHT boxes, plastic bags, refrigerated cartons, bottles of yogurt, or sold fresh from the back of a motorcycle; one aisle of any given supermarket is given to shelf-stable milk products and one section of refrigerated case is given to their fresh counterparts. There's whole milk, low-fat milk, skim milk, coffee milk, chocolate milk, strawberry milk, peanut milk, walnut milk, and sugary, watery yogurt-milk products; there's also French, New Zealand, Australian, Dutch, Italian, and Danish butters and cheeses, Kraft Philly and New Zealand cream cheeses, and Dannon and local-made yogurts in a range of flavors. There are at least 130 Pizza Huts now open in China's cities, which isn't many numerically (contrast with over 1,000 KFC's), but is a lot considering that small pizzas ("9") are 6-7 dollars and mediums ("12") are 8-10 dollars. I will agree that the "spoiled milk" flavor is the final frontier, though, as yogurts especially are essentially impossible to find without added sugar. Oh yeah, there's ice cream too in a range of flavors and novelties that would put Good Humor to shame...my favorite is Yili's "Ku Kafei" - bitter coffee ice cream dipped in chocolate on a stick.

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one aisle of any given supermarket is given to shelf-stable milk products and one section of refrigerated case is given to their fresh counterparts

That may be true in provincial capitals and other large cities. But in my experience, not true elsewhere.

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

The Kitchen Scale Manifesto

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Everything said thus far in this thread I agree with entirely, but I wanted to highlight a few points.

Westerners have figured out how to integrate the most bland and generic tofu into some dishes, but they usually have no idea of the huge variety of tofu products available in a Chinatown, or what to do with them.

It's interesting to me that Westerners continue to have perceptions of tofu being especially bland and tasteless.

I assume those with such impressions don't think of tofu as a conduit for flavor nor are have they had tofu presented in a tasty manner.

As it stands now, cheese still seems like something that has spoiled.  Cantonese people revel in the fact that the Cantonese phrase for "pig shit" sounds a lot like "chee-sz".

Really? I wasn't aware of that belief.

There is another issue here too.  Like some French people, some Chinese people are often smugly self-satisfied with the cuisine of their own country and aren't terribly interested in what other countries' cuisines might have to offer.  Dairy products have gained more ground in pastries because China already a has a lively pastry tradition.  Lack of curiousity and eclecticism will keep cheese on the fringes of Chinese cuisine for quite a while, I think.

This is most definitely true, the smug self-satisfaction bit. It's true with intra-China cuisines as well.

Obviously, we all agree that Cantonese cuisine is by far the best tasting food.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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'best tasting'

I have a little trouble with that. Cantonese is certainly the 'most respected', but how does one determine 'best in taste' unless you have identical foods/dishes.

Am I opening a can of worms?

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'best tasting'

I have a little trouble with that. Cantonese is certainly the 'most respected', but how  does one determine 'best in taste' unless you have identical foods/dishes.

Am I opening a can of worms?

I think, hope, that the statement that cantonese food is the best was sarcastic and a demonstration of the "smug, self-satisfaction bit."

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A friend of mine once worked in Hong Kong doing marketing for a large American dairy/foods company. One afternoon she sat in a three-hour meeting of people analysing the dismal sales of their cheese products. After listening to all this sturm and drang, she raised her hand, "Isn't the problem that the Chinese don't like cheese?"

She also mentioned that Chinese think Westerners smell badly because of all the dairy they consume.

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As it stands now, cheese still seems like something that has spoiled.  Cantonese people revel in the fact that the Cantonese phrase for "pig shit" sounds a lot like "chee-sz".

I really have problem with this statement. The fact that the Cantonese translation of the word Cheese sounds close to "pig s**t" is coincidental. In English/Cantonese translations, almost anything that ends with (or start with) an "S" or "CE" would be translated as something that sounds like "s**t". As noted months ago, that goes for BUS, TAXI, Store, Toast, and so on.

Saying that Cantonese people purposely portrait Cheese as something disgusting (to eat) is a total lack of understanding of the Cantonese, or in a bit narrower scope, Hong Kongers' culture and language. Whether someone likes the smell of cheese is up to the individual. To broadly implicate that Cantonese/Hong-Kongers take pleasure in associating “pig s**t” with cheese because they don't like the smell of cheese is a problematic logic.

While the rest of China may not have been exposed to cheese and daily products. Hong Kongers have plenty of food items made with or related to cheese and other dairy products due to many years of influences from America, UK, Australia and Europe. The new generations who grew up in Hong Kong all drink milk as a fact of life. That's why companies like "The Dairy Farm" in Hong Kong became so successful in the past decades.

I don’t want to get in the fight of my cuisine can beat up your cuisine. I think everybody has his/her own favorite and just let it be so.

Edited by hzrt8w (log)
W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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I think, hope, that the statement that cantonese food is the best was sarcastic and a demonstration of the "smug, self-satisfaction bit."

Gotcha!! I was taking it too seriously!

My New England Thanksgiving Dinner is the best in the country!

There is only one BBQ -- South Carolina's! (ever get into a discussion about BBQ with a group of Southerners?!!)

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