HOME > Chowhound > Not About Food >


Cheese and Asian food [moved from General Topics board]

  • p

Why is it that cheese is not used in Chinese (or other Asian)cooking? (obviously it doesn't go with the dishes, but that's not really my point of the question) Why don't people in China eat cheese? I have heard it is becoming more common now there but overall I'm unclear.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Chinese eat very little dairy of any kind - milk, cheese, cream, yogurt etc. I saw no dairy cows in China when I was there. I think it's never been part of the culture. Perhaps dairy cows weren't adapted to local farming? Many Chinese find even the smell of dairy unpleasant. My mother absolutely refused to eat any cheese unless it was unrecognizable.

    1. I'm guessing it has something to do with lactose intolerance being more common, and I've heard they traditionally consider it "gross".

      10 Replies
      1. re: deibu

        Ha. And i find soy milk 'gross'. though I've never tried it.

        1. re: welle

          once you make the transition to soy milk - trust me - you will never go back to milk

          1. re: kare_raisu

            why? I am happy with regular cow milk

          2. re: welle

            How would you find it gross if you'd never tried it?

            1. re: PeterL

              The same way Chinese find milk 'gross' I guess. I can stomach almost anything but the idea of soymilk turns my stomach for some reason.

              1. re: welle

                Try any of the dishes that have "fried milk" at the Cantonese places around town. It has the consistency of cheese.


                1. re: welle

                  Thanks, Eric. I just googled up 'fried milk' and it sounds like they use real milk:

                  But it sounds more like a main dish, and your description sounds like it was more of a dessert. Was the fried milk in your case more like Gulab jamun?

                  1. re: welle

                    Fried milk is typically not served as dessert, but just a course out of many. You will notice that Hong Kong will have a higher proportion of milk products used simply because of long periods of interaction with the British. We also have a variation on milk with tea.

                    1. re: welle

                      Chinese who find milk gross after they experienced drinking it, not before.

                2. re: deibu

                  Lactose intolerance is only prevalent in southern China, IIRC.

                3. It goes both ways: no dairy <=> lactose intolerance. I heard that tolerance to lactose is something you acquire by consuming dairy from young age. Some tribes in Africa that herd cows can drink milk, though most Africans are lactose intolerant.

                  BTW, not all Asian cultures do not consume dairy. In most Central/Northern Asia dairy is a main staple.

                  1. Because the Chinese geography (hilly, lots of people, not much land) does not cater to raising grass feeding mammals such as cattle or goats, until you get far west or north.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: PeterL

                      Cattle in the river basins of China were for labor, not dairy, and lands where grazing would be possible and more productive than other uses were as you noted not as extensive as in other areas.

                      Central Asiatic peoples (eg, Mongols, Turks, et cet.) did make considerable use of dairy, and the Chinese likewise developed a negative cultural association with the dairy-based diets of those peoples, who were regularly at war with (and sometimes conquered) China.

                      The precise etiology of widespread lactose intolerance immediately south and east of lactose-loving peoples is a kind of chickey-egg question given the above....

                    2. I won't say that cheese is completely absent from Chinese/Asian diets. Cheese made from yaks, sheep and goats play a prominent role in Monoglian and Tibetan cuisine.

                      But it is true that dairy products are generally absent from Asian diets. I think PeterL is right that geography has a lot to do with it.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: mielimato

                        Mongolian is worlds apart from Chinese, but that's another topic...

                        1. re: welle

                          ...but it is a part of Asia which was what was meant by "Chinese/Asian diets."

                      2. My favorite cuisine is Chinese, but unfortunately the Chinese limited use of dairy (and chocolate) make it one of the work cuisine's in terms of dessert. Am I the only one who doesn't like the red bean paste?

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: rcheng

                          Hey, what about egg custard tarts, mango pudding and those white cubes w/fruit salad? Frankly, the best dessert is oranges slices. You're right about the red bean "soup," good thing it's usually free, still awful.

                          1. re: Sarah

                            Sure, I do like the egg custard, and that is the exception. However, these do not even come close to desserts such as tiramasu, cannolli, panna cotta, or a good cheesecake. I know the French are highly touted for their desserts, but my favorite cuisine for desserts is Italian.

                            With all that said, I take Chinese pasta dishes over Italian pasta dishes any day of the week.

                            1. re: rcheng

                              There are plenty of Chinese desserts, but it's not a major part of the cuisine. Who's going to fuss over dessert when you've already been stuffed with two rounds of a Chinese banquet? But seriously, you don't like eight treasure sticky rice? Shaved ice? Boba? Taro tapioca soup? Mochi soup?

                              My mom is of the opinion that the Taiwanese, at least, don't need dessert because they have such superior fruit to the states.

                              As for the tarts and puddings, I'm sure those are very recent Western influenced desserts. I would say within the last 50 years (anyone know for sure?) I do think the Chinese often take Western pastries to greater heights, making them prettier and tastier than they were originally.

                              1. re: Pei

                                "As for the tarts and puddings, I'm sure those are very recent Western influenced desserts." I would agree with this. The egg custard tarts are really similar to Portuguese egg custard tarts; I wonder if they were a result of Portuguese colonization in Macau.
                                I like the Chinese versions of Western pastries in Chinatown bakeries because they are not as sweet, and lighter in texture.

                                1. re: Pei

                                  I still find it hard to turn down a good lardy taro paste with gingko nuts and pumpkin, a Teochew staple. And a guo1 bing2/"pancake" stuffed with lotus or red bean paste is also very nice when made properly. For the wealthy, there's always bird's nest soup with rock sugar, double boiled in a papaya. Walnut soup, made from the cream of finely ground walnuts, takes forever to make. I've very very rarely had a good version of douhua/the super soft beancurd; but it can be a sublime experience -- the fine ones are so amazingly delicate.

                                2. re: rcheng

                                  Strangely enough, the recipe for xing lian dofu (the white cubes with fruit salad) is actually very similar for the recipe for panna cotta, though one uses milk, the other cream.

                              2. re: rcheng

                                BTW, typo in my post, it should read:

                                ...make it one of the WORST cuisines in terms of dessert...

                                1. re: rcheng

                                  I think it's all about acquired taste. When I first tried read bean paste dessert, I thought it was disgusting. Now I can't get enough of it (I still cannot eat the jello type read bean things though). And what about those preserved salty/sweet plums? Yumm!

                                  1. re: welle

                                    Those preserved plums hardly qualify as dessert! Ack! And what is with the ubiquitous red bean/barley-ish soup -- that's a dessert?

                                2. Come to think of it, I seem to be the only one in my large extended family who drinks milk. It's kind of a family joke. I buy Clover skim milk by the gallon. Possibly related, I'm told I have very good skin, but no I don't bathe in the milk.

                                  As far a Chinese sweets go, my favorite is the breakfast item guy don cha (egg tea). In my family, I am the only one who makes it now. I recently found a jar of rock sugar when moving into my new house.

                                  1. I think it's primarily cultural and traditional. As others have pointed out, lactose intolerance can be overcome by drinking milk in childhood, and in the North (Mongolia) and West (Tibet through Xinjiang) cheese and yak butter are important ingredients. Since Mao's time, the drinking of milk for health has been promoted, especially in the big cities. My wife, her siblings and their children all indulge in hot milk at times.

                                    Han Chinese cuisine has little place for beef in general, when it comes down to it. In the decades of coupon rationing, only muslim minorities were issued coupons for buying beef; Han Chinese consider it something exotic as a result.

                                    Another reason for a Chinese disdain for cheese, particularly in Shanghai, is that mention of it evoked images of the smelly cheeses like brie enjoyed by the Westerners in the Foreign Concessions. Nonetheless, few Chinese have come to the US at a young age and not learned to like pizza.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Gary Soup

                                      I don't know why, but a sane amount of cheese (not goat or feta)on pizza is not as repulsive or repellent as on/in other um- situations...

                                      1. Actually, it's not all Asian foods. There is a particularlly tasty (and common) Indian curry served with cheese curd (forget what it's called) that's served a lot of South Indian restaurants. They serve this cheese curd with curry, pan fried with veggies and a few other ways.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. I once saw a PBS special: the British family had to eat thousand year egg, the Chinese family (Hong Kong) had to eat bleu cheese.

                                          The British mother couldn't resist politely spitting the egg out.

                                          The Chinese kid said, with his mouth full "That's horrible!"

                                          Maybe there's some Chinese person on the International board at this exact moment asking why on earth Europeans don't use 1000 year old egg in their cuisine. :)

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Pei

                                            Shortly after my wife came to the US, we hosted a big home-cooked meal. Although the food was Chinese, some non-Chinese guests brought some Western desserts. One was pear served with Gorgonzola cheese. My wife loved the cheese and the woman gave her the leftover chunks.

                                            At our next meal, my wife stuffed some fried tofu with the cheese and made "mock stinky tofu."

                                          2. I was taught that lactose tolerance is a recessive gene. IIRC, Lactose tolerance is commonly found in those parts of the world where there is little sunlight (little Vitamin D), so milk is an important source of calcium.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: DingoWallaby

                                              not true. Take Mongolia - 300 out of 365 days in a year get sun, it's after all home of great Gobi desert. You could probably argue that it gets cold, so people don't expose their skins to sun much. Then take nomadic tribes of North Africa - plenty of sun and warm temperatures there. If you still argue that they cover up, then there are also peoples in sub-Saharan Africa that drive cattle and consume dairy.

                                              1. re: welle

                                                That's why I said commonly -- while cultures based around herds naturally had higher lactose tolerance rates (because cows and cow products were so highly associated with their major food sources), not all areas of lactose tolerance could be explained by them being pastoral cultures.

                                                For example:


                                                Who is at risk for lactose intolerance?

                                                Between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant and certain ethnic and racial populations are more affected than others. Up to 80 percent of African Americans, 80 to 100 percent of American Indians, and 90 to 100 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant. The condition is least common among people of northern European descent.

                                            2. chinese people didn't have ovens. bread/rolls are steamed, not baked. all the bakeries in china/taiwan/hong kong/macau are of dutch influence or portuguese influence. in general, they don't have a huge sweet tooth, more salty.

                                              my parents' have a friend who own a milk farm in taiwan and when we went there for the entire summer one year, we couldn't believe pint size containers of milk. the milk also tasted like butter and was more yellow than white. i was told cows in the united states are injected with hormones, etc to produce excess amounts of milk. the cows in taiwan and in general asia don't produce much milk and so milk is extremely expensive, come in small containers, and they actually mix the milk with powdered milk (thus giving the buttery taste) so that they can make more milk.

                                              1. Goat cheese has been eaten in Yunnan for a long time. I first tried the stuff, long before I knew about French goat cheese, in Kunming 20+ years ago. It's usually pan-fried.
                                                Sichuanese eat dairy. Fresh (unpasteurized) milk and fresh yogurt in small, reusable jars were sold on the street in Chengdu in the mid-80s.
                                                Unrelated - but to me fermented tofu is amazingly cheese-like.

                                                1. Chinese people do eat cheese. They have their version of mozzarella that is eaten with tea. This is my grandma's food.
                                                  If you didn't know by now we eat everything.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. The anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote a lot about lactose intolerance including in his book "Good to Eat", about this and other food customs. Search for "lactose intolerance" at this page: http://aurora.icaap.org/archive/harri.... Yes, Europeans had a harder time getting vitamin D from the sun and vegetables, so they developed the tendency to produce lactase all through their lives, rather than just during childhood.

                                                    1. Here's what I found...


                                                      "Historically, dairy and milk-based products were rare in China. A high incidence rate of lactose intolerance, low level of milk and dairy production, no cultural history of cheese and other dairy products combined to keep the market restricted. Add to this the mammoth transportation problems, southern climate, poor storage and packaging and dairy products were not the easiest things to produce and sell either for local or international companies.

                                                      1. I'm not too sure of other Asian countries but I think Korea likes cheese and dairy products. They put cheese in the Kimbap (Korean Maki Rolls), inside dduk bbokki (Korean Rice Cake), and a lot of the pastries.

                                                        Milk is also really big, Seoul Milk, being the biggest Dairy company in Korea. I believe they put lactase in their milk long before the states because I grew up drinking probably 3 glasses of milk a day when I was a child and I absolutely LOVED the flavor of the milk. Then I moved to the states and drank the milk and thought it tasted like water... to the point I only drank chocolate milk. I went back to Korea 10 years after I moved back and tasted the sweet nectar that is Korean bovine milk and really wondered why the incredible taste difference. Then about a year ago I drank my friend's Lactaid Milk and BAM it hit me, it was that same taste I always enjoyed when I was young. It was the enzyme lactase that converted the lactose into simpler sugar thus giving it that richer sweeter taste.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: Danimal n Hustler

                                                          The chinese also have a fried milk dish. In some texts it mentions that Ice Cream was even invented there, but I haven't confirmed that.

                                                        2. Does anyone know of an Asian Cheese called Munchi or something like it? Most appreciated

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: gottalov3me

                                                            Mochi resembles cheese to some extent, but it's a rice flour goop.

                                                            1. re: Whippet

                                                              It's not flour. It's actually pounded rice.