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

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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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  1. a
    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.

              1. Someone recently posted a link to a tofu article on this board. It does not explain why dairy products never figured large in east asian diets, but it does suggest that soy products have filled nearly all of the same cuisine niches.

                "Tofu morphs into a whole range of products in much the same way that, in many Western countries, cow's milk is made into fresh and aged cheeses. The two processes are similar and so are the roles they play in Eastern and Western diets. In a very fundamental way, tofu has anchored nutrition and cuisine in the East, just as dairy milk has in the West.

                "The parallels between the two are nothing short of amazing," says Shurtleff. "It's astonishing that you could get from a plant what you get out of an animal." Some 19th centery Western observers in China even give soy the moniker of "the cow of China."

                Link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

                1. First, let me suggest that everyone read Diamond's incredible book _Guns, Germs, and Steel_ in which he addresses why western society and culture ended up the way it did relative to the rest of the world. One factor he points to is that animals like cattle, sheep, and goats are all native to Western Asia/Southern Europe and that Near Eastern and European societies developed a symbiotic relationship with these animals. Our western societies learned to utilize the meat, milk, and by products (leather & wool most particularly) from sheep, goats, and cattle. Societies that did not evolve in conjunction with these animals developed differently.

                  As to lactose intolerance--that is more a product than a cause of East Asian food preferences. Children everywhere can digest milk, and societies in which milk products are readily available will provide caloric benefits to individuals who can digest milk products into adulthood. Hence, in areas like Europe and the near East, over thousands of years, lactose tolerant individuals will have a higher rate of survival and thus pass on more lactose tolerant genes to the next generation than those individuals who are lactose intolerant. But this will occur only in societies in which there is an abundance of milk products. In other societies, lactose tolerance remains a characteristic of a small fraction of people only. In those societies, there is no benefit to being lactose tolerant.

                  In other words, Europeans and inhabitants of the Near East are better at digesting milk into adulthood because their societies have evolved together with animals that provide milk.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: e.d.

                    I read years ago about a foreign aid program that failed in Africa. Seems we shipped off tons of dried milk to lactose intolerant communities ( who did however find it useful for whitewashing their houses!). The article said that people become lactose intolerant because if you stop eating dairy products your body stops making lactase which is necessary to digest the milk sugar. Young mammals of the human variety who aren't weaned to other forms of milk because of cultural preferences or scarcity may be unable to resume dairy consumption. What I really wonder about now is the seeming increase of lactose intolerance in people of Western heritage. Any ideas about that?

                    1. re: suzannapilaf

                      I think a greater factor is the awareness of what the condition is. In previous generations, lots of people just had bad digestion. They took home remedies and patent medicines. Now that they are aware of lactose intolerance, they tend to self-diagnose it - whether or not that may be the case.

                      1. re: ;ironmom

                        That's probably true. A related phenomenon is the number of people what can't tolerate wheat. People with Irish or Northern Italian ancestry evidently may be allergic. Some can handle spelt, but others can't even have oats! It seems hard to imagine being allergic to the "staff of life" but there you have it. But I think most people who say they are allergic to wheat are self-diagnosed in a similar manner to those who have dairy allergies. Thank heavens I have neither!

                      2. re: suzannapilaf

                        I don't think those people became lactose intolerant because they started drinking milk again. Lactose intolerance is not the same thing as a milk allergy--not that anyone was implying that here. Sometimes allergies are triggered by overexposure, or just come on spontaneously, but lactose intolerance doesn't work that. It's more of a developmental continuum.

                        Lactose, or milk sugar, is too large to be absorbed whole. The gut secretes the enzyme lactase to break the lactose down. As you might expect baby mammals secrete a lot of this stuff, but lactose production tends to decline as they get older. The same is true of most people. Even the most lactose-tolerant among us have our limits. IF your lactose consumption exceeds your lactase production, some of that sugar will ferment in your intestine and cause bloating, cramps and diarrhea.

                        Your lactose tolerance is genetic, but it's hardly ever an all-or-none thing. Most people can get away with eating at least small quantities of dairy--like a yogurt drink or a ice cream cone.

                        1. re: Lindsay B.

                          Thanks for your response. It accurately reflects my personal condition. I can eat small amounts of milk and milk products fine; but I will never forget an ex-girlfriend making me a wonderful tasting meal of bowls of New England style clam chowder with tons of ice cream for desert. No that's not why she became an ex-girlfriend. But that's the evening I discovered that I was generally lactose intolerant.

                      3. re: e.d.

                        I agree, Diamond's book is great.(its given me real insight into why my school is having such growing opains-going from a cheifdom to a state!) I am reading it now!

                        I am a little uncertain about the reasons for the "lack of dairy" in Northern Chinese diet at least...

                        first of all, it is now readily available at all little kiosks. you can often see people drinking a yogurt drink while walking along, and kids are definitely required to consume it. One of our "Chinese family" is very aware of the importance of calcium and that milk is a good source of it. she seems a bit turned off by the smell!

                        there are many alternative sources of calcium in Chinese diet that i can see...maybe it wasn't necessary.

                        Also, South East Asia and India do have milk products in their diet...this is the apparent location of domestication of cows.

                        I don't know the specifics of dairy cow production...but could it be that cows raised for dairy production are quite a bit different than cows raised for meat?

                        So many questions...

                        BTW, we often add unsweetened yogurt to our stirfry, and it is fantastic. a whole new dimension in flavor!

                        peace, jill

                        1. re: e.d.

                          I agree that lactose intolerance "is more a product than a cause of East Asian food preferences" but I don't believe that it is an evolutionary process. Recent research suggests that it is a temporary condition which can occur in any populace which has no tradition of milk drinking, or even in individuals of any genetic stock who have refrained from using whole milk products for a long time. Introducing (or re-introducing) whole milk products can, over a relatively short period of time, lead to a cessation or lessening of lactose intolerance in most individuals.

                          China has had several waves of agressively promoting milk-drinking, and in cities like Shanghai which have historically "gotten with the plan" the daily drinking of milk is now widespread among most families above a certain economic level.

                          The article linked below about a new school milk program in China should raise some eyebrows among those who buy into genetic theories of lactose intolerance.

                          Link: http://www.china.org.cn/english/SO-e/...

                          1. re: e.d.

                            Hasnt that book been widely dismissed in the cultural anthropology field (the field the book belongs to)?

                            I remember in this anthropology class I took last year this book came up in discussion, the professor said it is creative and all, but is basically one more in a long line of cultural materialist theories a la Marvin Harris (another great read for those who like this stuff is the classic Harris explanation of why the cow is sacred in India) and is saddled with the same flaws that has debunked other cultural materialist works (to go into this would require super long post, but it might be worth checking into if you are into reading this stuff).

                            But Guns Germs and Steel is widely popular among laypeople, even a property law professor of mine mentioned it in class and recommended it.