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Dec 20, 2002 09:36 PM

Got no milk? Why don't Far East Asian cultures use the stuff?

  • u

Wifey and I were discussing this over dinner tonight (Green Symphony vegetarian Chinese place in Port Chester, NY - good stuff):

How come milk never became part of the far east asian diet? Surely they could have produced milk and dairy products if people wanted it. What's the deal?

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    Alexandra Halsey

    I don't know the answer, but perhaps it lies somewhere with the availability of grazing land for cows, goats, etc?


    1 Reply
    1. re: Alexandra Halsey

      aren't the mongols credited with first cultivating & appreciating yogurt?

    2. lactose intolerance?

      1. They do, in fact drink a lot of milk in parts of China. My wife and stepdaughter are from Shanghai, and they always make sure we have milk in the fridge. However, it is not as widespread as here, for a number of reasons:

        1) The meat of choice in China is pork, and therefore the raising of cattle is not widespread, except in areas with substantial Muslim minority groups.

        2) Chinese are loathe to partake of foods which have not been cooked or heated through, and usually drink milk hot, which makes it less convenient than just picking up a bottle from the store and guzzling it.

        3) They do have a higher incidence of lactose intolerance than do people in the west, though nowhere as prevalent as commonly supposed.

        As far as cheese is concerned, Chinese people in China historically tended to equate cheese with sharp and smelly cheeses that tend to travel well, and were enjoyed by Westerners in the treaty ports. They never developed a taste for these, but Chinese who emigrate (especially the young) almost invariably develop a liking for pizza and other foods which use mild, cooked cheese.

        As far as cuisine, Chinese do very little baking at home in China, and what cooked foods containing milk or cheese are not baked?

        The only cuisine in most of China that I can think of that utilizes milk is fried milk custard, a popular dessert in some locales. But I wouldn't be surprised if milk is used in some curries in Asia.

        And of course, as another poster mentioned, yoghurt is well known in North Asia, as is Yak butter.

        1. Dairy product consumption seems more prevalent (though not at all common) in west than in east China (maybe bec of the Tibet connection?). In the mid-80s one could have milk (unpasteurized -- one had to boil it before consuming it) and yogurt delivered in Chengdu. There weren't enough westerners living there at the time to justify production specifically for us so I suppose locals consumed them as well ... some of my Chinese friends would add hot milk to their rice congee for breakfast.
          I first sampled semi-hard goat cheese in Kunming in 1984 --- fried in strips. Ice cream was also very popular in Kunming. And anyone out there remember the milk-flavored "bing gwer" (popsicles) esp in Beijing? They may or may not have contained dairy.

          7 Replies
          1. re: foodfirst

            Caucasian and African humans in certain cattle-raising tribes are unusual among all MAMMALS in being able to digest lactose in adulthood. Lactose intolerance is found in some 90+% of East Asians and is also very high in Native Americans. The consumption pattern you describe may follow the genetic makeup of the people in those regions, e.g., western and southern China may have more non-Han genotypes and greater ability to digest lactose.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              I recall being told by an old friend that mice do not go for cheese in China...don't know what it is. Must bait traps with something else. Now that's a topic for discussion!

              1. re: Jim H.

                Actually, mice don't have any special love of cheese here (over other foods). The baiting-the-mousetrap-with-cheese thing is kind of a pre-urban legend.

                Nowadays they recommend baiting your traps with peanut butter.

                1. re: ironmom

                  And they are right. Mice are very attracted to peanut butter, as are racoons (and, unfortunately, skunks).

                  1. re: Pat Goldberg

                    I was told to bait my Hav-a-hart with peanut butter for trapping red squirrels. They weren't having any. Some experimentation resulted in our discovery that the bait of choice for red squirrels is....

                    (drum roll)

                    Tootsie Rolls.

                    1. re: GG Mora

                      But gray squirrels like PB just fine, as we are in the process of learning.

                  2. re: ironmom

                    People the world over (except China) were baiting their mousetraps with cheese...long before peanut butter was invented. I like peanut butter, too. Who doesn't. But mice still go for cheese.

            2. the only encounter i've had with milk is with the sweetened condensed milk version used in sauces--i.e. over shaved ice, with steamed/fried buns, in coffee, etc. i always found the regular milk in china/taiwan to be thicker (even if it's labeled "skim") and different-smelling from American milk.