Dairy food was long absent from the Han Chinese diet until Western culture flooded in. Cheese was virtually unknown.
Cheese (nai lao 奶酪) and yogurt (suan nai 酸奶) have been common for thousands of years among ethnic nomadic herding people in border regions, but these people historically were regarded as barbarians by ancient Han Chinese. Cheese was associated with barbarian cultures and, hence, avoided.
In addition, Chinese tend to avoid uncooked foods and some people find the smell of cheese unpleasant. Further, there was and still is a high proportion of lactose-intolerance among Han Chinese.
Today both imported and domestic cheeses are increasingly popular. Western types also are produced in China.
But Chinese cheese is distinctive; some can be chewed for hours like gum.
Glutinous rice wine can be added to milk in making pudding-like cheese. Cheese can be grilled, deep-fried, served with chili and or dipped in tea. It can be shaped into knots.
Typically cheese is produced in herding areas in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region - all areas where ethnic minorities predominate.
Chinese cheese is made from milk of cows, sheep, goats, yaks, camels and mares. It can be hard, semi-hard or soft like tofu. Milk is also made into yogurt and tofu-like desserts, It also can be fermented into a tasty beverage.
Some of the most popular Tibetan cheeses are made from the milk of yaks that live at high elevations. Churakampo, for example, is a hard, dry cheese made from yak buttermilk, to which butter and sugar are added. It's very rich and can be chewed for a couple of hours like chewing gum.
"At first a bit of cheese like a small stone in your mouth, but it eventually softens after an hour or two," says Li Huai, a travel blogger.
In south China, cheese is made by the cattle-raising Bai people in Yunnan Province and by Han Chinese in Foshan, Guangdong province.
Cheeses made in northern China generally have a heavy, rich flavor. Those from the south are milker and have some similarities with Italian cheeses.
Milk tofu (奶豆腐)
This cow-milk cheese (nai doufu) comes from Inner Mongolia. Its appearance and texture are similar to that of tofu, but it's firmer than tofu.
Raw milk, usually colostrum, is coagulated, fermented and formed into blocks.
Herdsman sometimes soaks the cheese in tea, serves it with fried millet and braised mutton.
It can also be dried. It's a staple food.
Flavor and texture changes when it is cut into different sizes.
Thick slices are soft, milky, slightly sweet and sour; think slices taste sweeter and melt in the mouth.
Milk tofu dries soon and turns hard.
Before eating, it is often steamed or grilled.
Dried milk tofu is available at Taobao.com. Those who want fresh cheese should visit Inner Mongolia.
Mozzarella of the East
Ru shan (乳扇), in Chinese, means milk fan, referring to the shape of a fan. It is cow milk cheese made in the grasslands of Yunnan by the Bai people in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. The Bai are one of China's 56 ethnic groups.
The shiny white cheese is chewy and pliable. To make it, fresh cow milk is warmed in a wok, then suan jiang (酸浆), a local sour liquid used for curdling, is added. Curds are then removed, worked with the fingers and finally stretched over a bamboo frame to dry.
Many locals eat it raw, with sugar and some people say it tastes like mozzarella, but with a leathery texture.
Some people prefer to grill or deep-fry the cheese and serve it hot.
"Ru shan, after being deep-fried, turns golden and has layers of texture," says food critic Shu Qiao. "The outside is airy and crispy, while the inside is soft and chewy. If it is grilled and served with rose paste, it has a rich milky flavor with pleasing notes of caramel."
Yunnan also serves ru shan with chilies.
Some Yunnan restaurants in Shanghai serve authentic fried ru shan. If you like it raw, then it's best to go to Dali in Yunnan.
A Beijing specialty, this snowy white cow-milk cheese is semi-soft like pudding and served in a bowl. It's a blend of Han and Mongolian food cultures. It's made by adding mellow rice wine, giving it a balanced, sweet and sour taste.
"A bowl of silky cheese, clean and pure, moistens the dry throat, cools and refreshes the body in hot summer," writes famous gourmet Liang Shiqiu in his book "Ya She Tan Chi" ("Talking about Dining in My Elegant Home").
There was no herding in the plains around Beijing, so starting in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) Mongol emperors in Beijing introduced cheese from Mongolia. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), imperial chefs changed the recipe by adding wine made from glutinous rice to cows' milk. The milk is mixed with wine, baked in an oven and cooled until it curdles.
"Compared with Western cheese, Beijing cheese tastes much lighter and is healthier, low in calories," says Han Mei, owner of Bao Zhu Cheese in Shanghai, which sells Beijing cheese and other Beijing-style dairy products. She is one of the first to bring the imperial court pudding cheese to Shanghai.
"The freshly made court cheese, without a curdling agent, should be served within an hour after it is cooled or it will melt and lose its firm, tofu-like texture," Han says.
In Beijing, the cheese is sometimes topped with raisins and melon seeds.
Also on offer are Beijing-style court cheese cake made with concentrated milk and filled with osmanthus, sesame and chestnut and Bao Zhu Cai Cai, a white tofu-like dessert made from Beijing cheese and yogurt and topped with fresh fruit and red bean paste.
Bao Zhu Cheese
Address: B2, 1601 Nanjing Rd W. Jing'an District, Shanghai
Daliang buffalo cheese (大良牛乳)
The buffalo-milk cheese (niu ru) is made in Daliang Town in Guangdong Province. The town near Foshan is famous for buffalo milk with an intense aroma and taste. The mild, sweet-and-salty cheese comes in thin, round flakes that are sold in a jar.
The cheese's origins date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when an Italian missionary could not bear to see people throwing away extra buffalo milk. He showed locals how to made Italian cheese. Chinese later adapted the recipe, adding white vinegar and salt during curdling.
One local from Daliang says she usually dissolves the flakes in hot congee until the milky flavor and aroma are released. Sometimes the flakes are dissolved in hot water, which is said to removed "internal heat" (yang energy) in summer.
Making the cheese is very labor-intensive "while the profit is too thin," says Li Meihuan, a 40-year-old cheese maker in Daliang who has been in the business for more than 40 years. "I fear this old Chinese cheese craft will wither away in coming days."
There's no buffalo-milk cheese available in Shanghai, those who want to try it have to go to Daliang.
Li Xi Ji
Address: 22 Yanjiang Rd, Daliang Town, Foshan City, Guangdong Province
Tel: (0757) 2221-7882
Xinjiang milk knot (新疆奶疙瘩)
The milk knot (nai ge da) is made by Kazkh nomads using cow or goat milk that is fermented, boiled and dried. It's a dry cheese with a rough skin. The more it's chewed, the more flavors it releases.
Milk knots can be sweet or sour. The sweet type contains milk fat and is fattier and more fragrant. The sour type made without fat is still milky but less aromatic.
According to Zhang Ling, who grew up in Xinjiang, locals usually soak the milk knot in hot tea to soften it before eating, or chew it slowly. In winter, sour knots are used to season noodles while cooking.
Milk knots are rich in nutrition and considered a staple for herdsman in winter. Many have private recipes for knots that taste different from standard knots sold in markets.
There's no authentic milk knots available in Shanghai, go to Xinjiang and check out the Er Dao Qiao Market (37 Jiefang Rd S., Tianshan District, Urumqi).
Other dairy products available in Shanghai
Butter tea or su you cha (酥油茶) is made by Tibetans from tea, yak butter and salt. It has a strong taste, salty and sweet, oily and creamy, thick and sticky.
It has an intense yak butter aroma, described by many Tibetans as aromatic, and by many tourists as strange. It's a warming, high-calorie drink favored by those living at high elevations.
Tibetan dip tsampa, a roasted barley dough, into butter tea which is a must-order in Tibetan restaurants.
Zha Xi Da Wo Restaurant
Address: 666 Tianyaoqiao Rd, Xuhui District
This Xinjiang-style yogurt (suan nai zi 酸奶子) is made from cow or goat milk. Suan means sour, nai zi means milk.
It has a high-acid, intense milky flavor and is darker, thicker and more dense than ordinary yogurt.
It's close to yellow in color. Because of the acidity, it's often served with sugar and sometimes topped with raisins to add sweetness and balance the taste.
Man Tuo Lin Restaurant
Address: 3/F, 601 Zhangyang Rd, Pudong
Kumis or ma nai jiu (马奶酒) is a Central Asian drink, slightly alcoholic, made from fermented mare's milk.
Compared with cow and goat milk, mare's milk contains more sugar. The alcohol content is usually less than 18 percent. The taste is light, slightly tart and a bit sweet.