Abstract: Non-rennet cheeses have existed in China for almost two millennia. Such cheeses reflect the influence of the foodways of pastoralists from the steppes, especially Persians and Turks. Premodern Chinese adopted the milking practices of these peoples and incorporated cheese and other dairy products into their diets. These ancient cheese-making practices survive nowadays in Yunnan Province, though they enjoy a precarious existence due to environmental regulations and market economics.
Citation: Cheung (2021). Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.
Keywords: Dairy products; milk; cows; sheep; non-rennet cheeses; Yunnan; history
Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.
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The Chinese are hardly famous for their cheeses; in fact, most modern accounts of Chinese cuisine emphasize the stunning lack of dairy products. Yet this oversimplifies the situation. Historically, dairy products played a role in the diet of the core regions of China, particularly in the Yangzi (Chang) River Delta, in the southeast. As the sinologist François Sabban (1986) shows, Chinese gastronomes once wrote about the fashioning of dairy products including cheese on a regular basis. In modern times, however, cheese has enjoyed a less conspicuous place in the Chinese diet, although it is regularly consumed in the borderland regions of Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Yunnan.
At least three kinds of cheeses played a significant role in the diet of the elite in premodern times, none of which was rennet based. The first was what food writer Fuschia Dunlop (2016) calls a “rudimentary lactic cheese,” evidently of foreign, Central Asian origin. The earliest references to these cheeses date to the early first century ce. Such cheeses went by a variety of names (mili 𤑺蠡, ganlao 乾酪, lulao 漉酪), many of which were borrowed from a foreign language from the steppes. Not coincidentally, references to these cheeses surface, first, in poems that described military confrontations between the ancient Chinese and their nomadic enemies (Blažek 2015; Pulleyblank 1962).
The Central Asian origins of these cheeses are also evident from their methods of preparation. Though made in a variety of ways, the cheeses invariably entailed a base of yogurt—the quintessential food of the steppes. The earliest recipe for this kind of cheese is preserved in the Essential Techniques for the Commoners (Qimin yaoshu 齊民要術) written in the mid-sixth century ce by a Chinese aristocrat living in the Turkic-controlled north. The recipe describes a process akin to the making of aaruul or qurut, nowadays consumed by Mongols and Tibetans. Yogurt, made from the milk of sheep or cows, is strained of liquid and then shaped into balls, or dried outside in the heat (Sabban 1986; Jia n.d, 57, 431–434). Later descriptions, dating after the fourteenth century, point to something more like kashk, a cheese with a Persian name made by fermenting yogurt by boiling it in a little water before straining and reshaping the curds into sticks or balls for drying (Anonymous 1268, 14, 39a). While this kind of cheese disappeared from the mainstream Chinese diet centuries ago, it is still widely consumed in Central Asia and the Middle East, including the Persian-speaking world (Aubaile-Sallenave 1994; Buell and Anderson 2010, 65; Moraba 2016).
The Chinese also consumed a second kind of fresh cheese, produced through acidification, which they referred to simply as “milk curds” (rufu 乳腐) or, later, “milk cakes” (rubing 乳餅). Such cheeses appear in texts beginning in the eighth century, at the height of Central Asian cultural influence in China (Sabban 1986, 42). Extant recipes are later, dating from the thirteenth century, but they suggest a very simple procedure. Fresh cow’s milk was brought to a low boil before stirring in a splash of rice vinegar or lime juice. Once soft curds emerged, the cook would strain the curds with a gauze and squeeze out the remaining whey with a stone (Anonymous 1268, 14, 39a). Unlike yogurt-based cheeses, whose earliest names betray their foreign origins, the origins of this cheese are less certain. The recipe resembles closely the cheeses consumed not in Mongolia as much as the varieties eaten in Northern India, Iran, and Central Asia (Sen 2016; Tan 2016; Dunlop 2016).
This fresh cheese is still popular in Yunnan (southwestern China), nowadays regarded as a local specialty. In restaurants, cooks stir-fry the cheese together with local mushrooms or Xuanwei ham. At home, people pan-fry the cheese and sprinkle it with sugar. The contemporary version differs from its premodern predecessors in two ways. Whereas premodern southern Chinese preferred cow’s or buffalo’s milk, the cheese is now made primarily with goat’s milk (though vendors often make a version with cow’s milk for customers who dislike the gamey flavor of goat). Second, the cheese is coagulated with an aged quince juice rather than with vinegar. One local vendor, a Muslim man in Dali 大理, stated that vinegar interferes with the flavor of the cheese.
The third kind of cheese are stretched curds. Nowadays, these curds are called rushan 乳扇 (literally, milk “fans”). The name most likely was a corruption of the Chinese term ruxian 乳線 (milk “threads” or “strings”), since the pronunciation of the two words are similar in the local Yunnan dialect. Unlike mozzarella, the best-known stretched curd in the West, rushan or ruxian is produced without rennet, and instead employs a combination of lactic acid and acid-fermentation. The first stage resembles the making of fresh cheeses. Fresh milk is left out to ferment spontaneously. Once curds separate from the whey, they are then washed in an acidic juice (nowadays, quince juice), until a pliable curd forms, one that can be kneaded and stretched on chopsticks before being dried into sheets (Dunlop 2016). People in southwest China eat stretched curds predominantly as sweet snacks. The curds are often deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar. The curds are also served in savory dishes, and used to encase, for example, a mixture of mashed purple yams and gizzards.
The origins of this cheese are debated. Unlike the yogurt or fresh cheeses described above, this stretched curd does not closely resemble the cheeses consumed in Central Asia. Not surprisingly, a number of theories exist about the emergence of the cheese in China, most of which assert its non-Han-Chinese origins. One episode of the Chinese-Australian television series, a Taste of China (2016), proposed that the cheese originated from the Mongols, who conquered Yunnan in the thirteenth century. Other sources suggest, in contrast, that the Bai or Yi ethnic minorities, who are numerous in Yunnan, were the first to create the cheese. In part, both of these theories reflect the fact that stretched curds are currently made only in China’s southwest, the homeland of a large number of non-Han ethnicities. The theories also owe much to the fact that Han Chinese have consumed few dairy products in recent centuries (Anonymous 1983, 163; Li 2004; Wu et al. 2005; Xiong 2007).
Interviews with local cheesemakers and vendors have suggested, however, a different story about the origins of the stretched curd. A number of Yunnan locals, including Tibetans, insist that the Han Chinese were the creators of stretched curds. Their claims are consistent with the historical record. The first references to stretched curds appear in Chinese sources in southeast China from the mid-fifteenth century (Chen and Xue 2008, 96). Many of the Han Chinese inhabitants of western Yunnan, moreover, descended from émigrés (including Central Asian Muslims) from the southeast, who were sent by the Ming emperor to relocate to the frontier in the tens of thousands. The émigrés brought not only their culinary practices to the southwest, but also government-issued cattle (Wiens 1952, 106–117; Brook 2010, 47; Dillon 1999, 36). In the second half of the sixteenth century, not long after the initial wave of émigrés to the southwest, references to stretched curds appear in materials associated with southwest China (Guizhou and Yunnan) (Chen and Zheng 1554, 163; Yang and Hu 1563; Chen and Xue 2008, 96).
While cheese has existed in China for almost two millennia, the survival of this ancient tradition is threatened. Unlike in the West, cheesemaking is largely the prerogative of small-scale cheesemakers, who raise small herds of cattle, water buffalos, and goats, and pool their milk in the local markets. The government recently has stepped up efforts to restrict local peasants from engaging in unregulated animal husbandry, in part due to health concerns. Local officials, furthermore, have forbidden them from grazing their cattle on hills, the traditional place for grazing, in order to prevent deforestation and the improper disposal of waste. These restrictions have raised the cost of milk and lowered the profit margins for cheesemakers.