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Feb 23, 2009 05:43 PM

very curious about where the cheese ends in asia

hi hounds,

my two favorite cuisines in the world are indian and thai. i love the paneer and spices and teas of indian food (especially the paneer - love it blackened, and in a spicy curry - ), and the chilis and seafoods and wide rice noodles and basil and fish sauce of thai food (i love me a pad kee mao basically incorporating all of these things!).

last year i ate my way through a pretty diverse cross-section of india, catching trains, flights and rides at random and going 100% off the word on the street (what words i could interpret, anyways) and it was the best experience of my entire life, hands-down. i had a paneer/vegetable biryani from a local at a small stop on an overnight train from jaipur to ahmedabad that quite possibly changed my life. paneer dosas in an odd back alley restaurant outside of jaipur. unfamiliar dark breakfast curries involving fried egg at a place filled entirely with muslim men... and me (slightly awkward!). more excellent biryani in hyderabad. a goan fish vindaloo dish. paneer tikka masala on a seaside hotel porch. masala tea and sugarcane juice and sweet lime drinks at every turn. amazing amazing amazing food. i was so happy. i want to go back, i loved that country. i could eat paneer and little else for the rest of my life.

anyway, it seems silly (to me) to go back to the same places when so much more of the world remains unexplored by me so i thought of indulging for a few weeks back in some of my favorite spots, benaulim beach in goa for sure (which is total and complete relaxation via: freshly caught fishes in strong curries and indian beer served oceanside by a cute indian waiter, friendly tamed stray puppies in your lap, beautiful and colorful (polluted!) sunsets, and QUIET compared to the rest of the country!), and then possibly heading out (via train?) to some other countries in the area.

then while browsing the map i noticed thailand is not THAT far, via bangladesh and burma. and THAT got me thinking (i've had a lot of time on my hands lately) about how there is NO cheese in thai cuisine. and i wonder where, exactly does the cheese end, between india and thailand? (i also got stuck on a similar tangent about where the last natural palm tree occurs on the US east coast, but that's irrelevant to chow) so what i'm wondering from chowhounds... would that make for an entertaining/delicious/educational/possible travel itinerary? has anyone wondered the same (about the cheese line)? is anyone from this general region who could shed some general light on the cheese situation? has anyone done this or something similar? does anyone have recs about how to travel (i'm open to train, or buying a cheap scooter or bike - i just don't know about the roads)? this is the first place i'm seeking out information and haven't done much research yet, haven't looked into visas, so forgive me if any part of this is totally unfeasible!

some background on me; i'm unemployed right now (who isn't?!), i've saved a bit of money, and i've got a few months to play around with. i'd probably look to spend about six weeks grazing in india and traveling across the continent and maybe back via a different route (open to suggestions). possibly leaving in late april. i'd be traveling solo, i'm 26 (as of tomorrow!) and female. i get around very well on my own (i prefer that style of travel, as i find myself interacting more with locals than if i have a friend to accompany me). i don't speak any other languages but i'm pretty good with communicating in pictures and gestures and via translation books. i travel light, and cheaply, and i don't look for comfort (i looked to spend between $5 and $10 a night on hotels when i was in india last year, and the conversion rates work more in my favor today, at least for india). give me some ideas, hounds! i have an itch to get out of philadelphia for awhile. thanks!

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  1. Never done anything like that before, but your post was interesting. Come back and tell us how it went if you do go!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Soop

      I lived in Bangkok for 12 years, and was trained as a Thai linguist before I got there. Thais, and this likely extends to all the Southeast Asians, just don't like cheese. Their biggest complaint is that it smells bad. About the only places you will find cheese being offered is in the larger western-style restaurants. But if you want a wedge of something to munch on during your travels you can get it at the Villa, Big-C or the other supermarkets, and most large department stores will also have western-looking food markets where they'll have imported cheeses. Won't be cheap though.

      For limited budget but adventuresome travel I'd suggest the trains. Second class is quite comfortable for day trips and at night the 2nd class cars make into sleepers which are excellent for overnight rides to the ends of the lines. The name of the main railway station is Bangkok is Hua-Lam-Phong and it is located at the end of one of the subway lines. Busses are even cheaper but can get cramped and they're not very comfortable for long rides.

      April is the hottest month and Dec is the coolest. I'm sure you've picked up from ChowHound that the street food in Thailand is truly awesome and very cheap.

    2. Yo, dog! I always look for cheese. The cheese line is in Burma. Burma used to be a part of India / the Raj; and Indian food and culture co-exists with Burmese there. I've had those similar cheeses / curds / dishes in Tajikistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bhutan, and parts of Burma. I've not had traditional cheeses in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, southern China, Taiwan, Indonesia, or East Timor. The Philippines has a carabao / water buffalo cheese, but that is artisanally produced in small quantities, sold along the highway, and is relatively expensive.

      11 Replies
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        how much cattle is there in the "cheese" nations as a proportion of all kinds of livestock? of course, in india, not a lot of beef is eaten, but the dairy cattle are widespread, right? is there a greater proportion of pigs (vs. cattle) in s.e. asia? i'm thinking the cheese "line" has to do with the local terrain and climate, and suitability of the types of animals raised there (and religious taboos).

        we had a similar discussion about the "yogurt trail" on another thread....

        rabid dog,
        i think there are palm trees in coastal north carolina.....certainly south carolina, where a palm is on the flag, of course.

        1. re: alkapal

          Tajikistan has way too many goats and some good goat's milk cheeses. In India and Pakistan, most of the cattle you see roaming about are used for pulling plows (although really good draft oxen are well tended). The diary cattle are out of sight, well cared for, and often supplemented with cut and carry alfalfa / clover. Bhutan's milk animals are also usually kept in stalls and fed by cut-and-carry systems. There is a special small milk cow indigenous to Bali, also largely penned. Families producing milk in south Asia usually have one or two producers, with the rare large herd being maybe 20 head. The case is similar for parts of Burma. Indeed, the no cheese countries have few dairy cattle, but do have cattle for meat and animal draft power. Yes, pigs are more common throughout non-Muslim south and southeast Asia. The challenge in Asia, Central America, and elsewhere is to get proteins into the diets of "dual purpose females" (cows raised for milk and meat). We try to do that by getting forage legumes into the feeding systems. As to breeds for milk production, you see large European / American in more temperate areas like in parts of Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan; the Bali cattle there; and heartier Bhrama mixes in much of south Asia - and in Central America.

          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            Sam, thank you! this is exactly the information i was looking for. great stuff and very interesting. i can't wait to get planning on this trip. i'd love to expand on my original thoughts and visit some of the other places you mention.

            we have a burmese restaurant here in philadelphia; i've been a couple of times but now i think i'm going to revisit them soon as i do remember a large history of burmese cuisine printed on the menu. and the menu is extensive - it reads like a book. i was fascinated by the cuisine - we had samosa-like pieces and thousand-layer breads that were faintly reminiscent of indian foods, then bean curd salads and red and masaman curry dishes that reminded me of some of my thai favorites. best of both worlds!

            alkapal: that was my guess, too - i've seen the palms in the outer banks. i've also seen them in VA beach, but i wonder if those are naturally occurring or planted. by the time you get to ocean city, MD, they're gone, and the beaches up here in NJ (i'm in philly but they're a quick train ride away) are palmless.

            what can i say - discovering where things end always fascinated me. :) i'll certainly keep the 'hounds on top of whatever itinerary i end up putting together!

            1. re: rabidog

              The Burmese and Indian populations in Burma are different in terms of cuisine. You might or might not find curds/cheese in a Burmese restaurant.

              My first wife and I had a Burmese cat in Oregon. Once years later out in remote rural Burma, I saw a Burmese cat and thought, "Hey, how do these poor people own such an expensive cat?" Doh!!!

              Happy birthday! Keep us all posted.

        2. re: Sam Fujisaka

          I think cheese is pretty prevalent in *modern* Taiwanese and Chinese cooking (esp. in the larger cosmopolitan cities like Beijing, Shanghai etc.). You'll find cheese, or dishes with cheese in just about every other restaurant in Honk Kong and Taipei.

          Certainly cheese is not a traditional ingredient in Chinese cooking, but nowadays it's hardly verboten.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            very interesting!! do you have any dishes you could name as an example? here in philly i have never seen cheese in our chinatown restaurants (though i will have to thumb through the burmese restaurant's menu in more detail, now). i wonder if we just haven't caught up to the region's trends yet?

            1. re: rabidog

              Well, typical Hong Kong style cafe dishes will include things like baked pasta with a cheese crust (see pic), cream cheese dumplings (or fritters) served with ponzu dipping sauce (see pic), and baked pork chop rice topped with gorgonzola. And, of course, just about every bakery in Taiwan or Hong Kong will have some sort of Asian take on tiramisu.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                HK style cafes serves what I would call a fusion cuisine, before the word fusion was fashionable. The cheese dishes came from British and Australia influences. The cheese ingredients in Beijing cuisines came from the western part of China. The strictly Chinese cuisine (Han) don't have any cheese as ingredients.

              2. re: rabidog

                Look for Hong Kong-style cafes. They have a lot of throwbacks, like lobster Thermidor.

            2. re: Sam Fujisaka

              I wonder if the cheese ends where the tofu begins?

              1. re: mogo

                Mogo: I too think it does.

                Dairy use seems to end where the soybean begins. Soybeans were not common in South Asia until very recently (and it still remains an upscale urban ingredient). And the flip side is that dairy products are less common where soy products are more widespread.

                Tofu is basically soymilk paneer......

            3. ever have Camel cheese from the Middle East? It's pretty nasty to be honest with you. I happened to be at a cheese shop in NYC (though it was not where the monger just received a gift of the vile stuff. It had an aftertaste similar to lobster. No joke.

              1 Reply
              1. re: dkstar1

                Sound's interesting. I guess that like cow cheese, camel cheese varies from region to region. From what I understand the version being made in parts of Mauritania (Africa) has many European gourmets in taste orgasms, so much so that they are up in arms that the european goverments pulled out all the stops to ban its importation (to protect the own indegenous cheesemakers)

                Speaking of odd milks when you daw the cheese line in Asia dont forget to incude Tibet and it's yak cheese. Okay it isnt "traditional" to the region (from what I understand some tibetans imported cheesemakers (from holland I think) to teach them how to make cheese, as a way of preserving excess yalk's milk. I've actually had the stuff and while not bad its in my opion nothing really special (tastes a bit like hard sheep cheese but smells even more sheepy)

              2. I'm no help to the OP, but I like the approach "catching trains, flights and rides at random and going 100% off the word on the street (what words i could interpret, anyways)"

                also known as living off the land (as a traveler)

                7 Replies
                1. re: hill food

                  haha, that does roll of the tongue much easier! i've always favored that type of travel, but really learned the hard way years ago when we booked a trip (prepaid hotel and ski lift tickets) at killington, VT. and then it rained. for days. we cut our losses, packed up, and drove up to quebec (we'd never been) for some fabulous indian food (at a place whose name it KILLS me i cannot recall) and then all over canada. i will always do my area research in-depth, but i will never, ever pre-book anything ever again. i love the freedom of staying longer in a place that calls to me, or setting off if a place is not my cup of tea!

                  mogo brings up another good point... LOVE the tofu... and i certainly eat a whopping ton of it from our thai and vietnamese restaurants over here. i don't eat any meats other than seafood (and i get a lot of that in my thai food, too). do thai dishes in thailand often use tofu the same way (in place of meats - like a pad kee mao with tofu instead of chicken)? are there a lot of vegetarians?

                  i wrote earlier about the lone burmese restaurant in philly and i went there for an early dinner the other day to read the menu in-depth. alas, no cheese on it, but perhaps they focus more on the southern parts which is where i'm guessing (just guessing) the cheese will end. lots of lentils used on that menu, i did notice. there's a crushed lentil and chilies dish which is then deep-fried (kinda similar to a falafel ball) and served with a spicy peppery diipping sauce. really really good. also had some deep-fried taro root. this restaurant in particular seems to rely heavily on the deep frier. had a salad with tofus, onion, tomato and cilantro as well.

                  i started my research on the logistics and was disappointed to find that burma's borders are closed by land. that's really unfortunate because i would have to fly into and out of rangoon, and take trains around the area from rangoon, which cuts out the continuous flow i was hoping to have from india to thailand. ah well.

                  1. re: rabidog

                    Three rivers meet at Rangoon, from there it is a short way to the sea. Come by boat.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      interesting - i didn't know i could get there by boat. what's a good place to depart from? (prefer to get there from india rather than thailand, as i wanted to visit thailand after burma if possible). Sam, do you live in asia now?

                      1. re: rabidog

                        Actually, I have no idea if it is possible for Americans or other travellers. Probably not. Boats did arrive from Thailand, Indonesia, and India; and I travelled by boat on rivers within the delta region. But, overall, it was/is difficult to travel to Burma. I worked there off and on for quite a number of years, but left Asia 15 years ago (for Cali, Colombia). You mentioned trains: I enjoyed the train trip between Rangoon and Mandalay and back.

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          wow! quite a diverse background - that must have been wonderful.

                          i'll definitely check out that train route. one of my favorite things about taking the train in india was all the stops at the little towns, where villagers would walk the platforms with home-cooked biryanis and other goodies - so yummy.

                          1. re: rabidog

                            Yes, I've been lucky. As an agricultural scientist, I've gotten to work all over the developing world - and in the remotest of places in those countries. We always ask, "What? We're getting paid to do this?"! And my sideline has always been street and market food and the food made by people in their homes in those areas.

                            Yes, the trains in India, Burma, and Thailand are good and fun. Unfortunately, the Thai trains have become so modern, clean, and efficient that the food hawker clamor has been reduced or eliminated. I enjoyed the litter of the crude hand made clay tea cups along the tracks in India after the tea drinkers purchased tea at the stops and tossed the cups out the train windows further down the line.

                    2. re: rabidog

                      In December the Thais changed their automatic visa process for Americans. It used to be that whenever you came into Thailand you got an automatic free 30-day visa that got stamped into your passport. But the new law is that you still get the 30 day visa only if you come in via air. If you enter Thailand via any other means (train from Singapore, auto from Malaysia, boat from wherever, you get only a 15 day free visa.

                  2. Will not comment on cheese aspect as Sam did a great job, but Myanmar is getting more difficult and expensive to visit. There is a minimum that must be spent in country which is not little and visa process is arduous as well. Investigate if Burma/Myanmar as well as Bhutan makes sense to your journey. On the other hand easy to get around the peninsular area of SE Asia. Few years back spent time based in Thailand and went over three months to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Singapore. Nowhere near enough time. The best thing of the trip was time spent in Hanoi, put it on my five favorite world cities, cannot say enough good things about it, food was wonderful. Another option is flying Air Malaysia into Kuala Lumpur and then they give you free flights to 25 cities in region, only rule is you have to fly back to KL each time, so time consuming but certainly inexpensive. And if you are on the Malay peninsula, detour to Korea, another phenomenal place. So, you are leaving Philadelphia just when l am moving back there. Have been reading your posts recently. Have fun on your adventure, it is the best part of life. If you have questions on the individual countries let me know and l will be glad to help. Food in Vietnam, Korea, and Thailand, IMHO, is not like what we get in the states and especially Vietnamese is so good. In one small coffee shop in the highlands, while waiting for your coffee to be brewed, and as you know it takes a long time, they give you a cup of tea while you are waiting. l am smiling with the memories. Easy to stay in Cambodia or Vietnam for $10-20 a day.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                      Delucacheesemonger, your post makes me smile with happiness. I seem to like the cities and countries that you do. As far as people, my working colleagues from Vietnam, Burma, and Bhutan could not be beat!

                      Dog, do stay in touch with the both of us.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Here is another memory that may hit home Sam. while just outside Vientiane was making sure did not drink unbottled water, checking each bottle bought to see they were opened by me and not refilled. It was so hot, passed street stand where man was pressing sugar cane on machine, Said have to do this, and did, and after pressing he threw all the juice into a bag of ice. It was so good and never got sick, great memory for me.

                        1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                          Great, and, to all, remember that a whole coconut with a hole sliced open is always great - coconut water is always so pure that it can be used as a sterile drip (warning, (slight) exaggeration for hueristic devices here employed).

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            Coconut water is *the* best.
                            And I recall hearing that coconut contains something that alleviates diarrhea (a radio show in the US by a medical anthropologist was advocating coconut macaroons as a remedy).
                            I wish aid and health workers would promote coconut water as much as ORT salts in areas where coconuts are abundant. I think they're already electrolyte balanced.

                          2. re: Delucacheesemonger

                            before going, colleagues and friends from india all gave me advice, and a lot of it was to only eat cooked or peelable foods. while i'm sure that's very sound advice, i am very glad i threw it out the window a couple days in last time! :)

                            ooooh pressed sugarcane was one of THE most delicious things! i found it in the bigger cities for 3 rupees a glass. they were served in real glasses so i chugged them down right at the stands. in a bag of ice- that is a great idea!!

                            it's hard to think of those temps when we just got hit with possibly the biggest snowstorm of the year! ...out to shovel...

                            with such rave reviews of hanoi i'll be sure to check into it! good to know about myanmar. i think it's going to be a challenge for sure but it's one of the top places i want to visit. i can be a stubborn one. :)