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Jan 3, 2011 06:21 PM

Short History of Cheese and Milk in JAPAN

Cheese and milk are both popularly enjoyed in Japan and have a household ubiquity similar to the U.S. While the introduction of cheese goes back centuries to varieties of Mongolian style cheese brought over from China and Korea, its` introduction to mainstream Japanese dining came about during the Meiji Era of late 19th century. This was the most significant time in Japanese history- from political, cultural, and every other aspect- including cuisine.

In 1868, by means of a near non-violent revolution, Japan went from being a closed highly regulated feudal society run by a military regime, to an open, representative government and very active member of international community. During this era, nearly all arms of public service were created and private commerce was encouraged. The education system, military, local and national political infrastructural were completely reformed and reestablished. This was done after thoroughly researching foreign countries and inviting foreign specialists to Japan. Japan's reputation as a country that excels at importing and assimilating foreign elements into their own society was made during this period. They set about at this selecting the best suited military, educational, and political structures for their country to enter the world stage. And they set up, on cultural and academic levels, to seek civilization and enlightenment- which was popularized with the compound "bunmeikaika" (文明開化).

So what does this have to do with milk and cheese in Japan? One of the efforts put forth by the new Meiji government was to develop a national nutrition strategy that could be implemented for school lunches and recommended to families. It was apparent to Japanese leaders from early dealings with European powers that their physical and robust bodies were a result of their diets of dairy and meat. In Japan, raising and serving meat had been banned for centuries by Buddhist edict. It was not a total ban as elicit meat restaurants and stores existed. Meat was said to have stamina providing medicinal qualities. It was actually called "kusurigui" (薬食い), which means "medicinal food"...Back to the main story....One of the first things the Meiji government did was lift the ban on meat. The Meiji leaders felt that it was important to develop a military on par with European powers and to foster the development of physically stronger and healthier national populace. This aspect of diet was addressed quickly when the lift on the ban was sort of surreptitiously made by announcing that the emperor himself enjoyed eating meat.

Anyway, in line with the encouragement of meat consumption, the Meiji government also established several national dairies to produce milk and cheese. Again to encourage the masses of the sanctity of this new diet, it was announced that the emperor enjoyed drinking milk twice a day. Significantly, milk and cheese and meat were the culinary and nutritional element of bunmeikaika- the civilization and enlightenment of the new Japan on a culinary level. So it was that the Japanese government itself introduced dairy into the Japanese diet. These dairies were established in Hokkaido in the 8th year Meiji year which is about 1876. Private companies were eventually established and some of them are still around today including Yukijiroshi and Meiji. They made processed cheeses. Ice cream was popular as well.

After WWII, in an effort to introduce protein into Japanese diets, the U.S. occupational authority added milk (condensed and powdered at first) to school lunches. Eventually fresh pasteurized milk became popular in homes and Japan went through the `50s and `60s with milkmen the same as the U.S. In late '60s and `70s blue cheese and Camembert became popular (anyone who's been to inexpensive izakaya in Japan will see ubiquitous Camembert on the menu). Today every supermarket has a cheese section and it's rare to meet someone who doesn't like cheese. My in-laws who are in their early 70's and late 60's, both enjoy cheese.

Cheese and milk do not lend themselves well to Japanese cuisine, so they are often eaten as we do in the U.S. As snacks, on crackers or bread, melted down with pasta, and of course pizza. White cream stew is also a popular home comfort food. I`m forgetting many other popular preparations....And I`m deliberately forgetting cheese as a ramen topping, although it does have its` admirers here. Recently though, I've seen cheese popping up at specialty sake izakaya. I went to a great one in the Kanda neighborhood of Tokyo a couple of years ago that pairs sake with fresh made cream cheeses ( Foreign cheeses continue to get popular here as well. I was mildy surprised to read on the Yukijiroshi company website that Japan is the 6th largest cheese importer in the world. The imported cheese are still prohibitively expensive, but the kind of craftsman approach to cheese is also going on in Japan. These days I recently saw tv a commercial for a craft cheese maker showing them traveling to Italy to present their cheese. Cheese in Japan. It's everywhere here.

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  1. Truly good stuff and a fascinating read, thanks for sharing! Looking forward to the day I can enjoy a piece of Sakura cheese, Sakura cheesecake, glass of Hokkaido milk, with a piece of baked Hokkaido potato with lots of Hokkaido butter, and a mondo cone of Hokkaido milk ice cream soft serve, without paying for it on the throne in the evening...

    A little more about cheese in China as a side note.... the nomadic tribes that produced and consumed cheese (mostly hard cheese) did not just come from Mongolia but there are also credits to those in Tibet (hard cheese made with yak's milk). It is true that milk and dairy products were not prevalent even in the agricultural areas in China back in the heyday, but the nomads definitely had to make the full use of their herds, nothing was wasted.

    The Yuan dynasty definitely brought about some change and influence into introducing cheese into mainstream China, but it was way more widespread and prevalent during the Qing Dynasty (interestingly both Qing Dynasty and Meiji Period ended in 1912). As previously mentioned one of the top four published stories from around 1784, 《紅樓夢》or "Red Mansion of Dreams", one of the leading male characters left his love interest a piece of hard cheese somewhere to taste, and his mom caught wind of it and ended up eating it herself. To make the guy feel better as he was miffed about the incident, the girl comforted him by saying that she would have felt ill (the lactose intolerant / I have a headache excuse) from eating it.

    The cuisine of the Imperial Qing palace would incorporate the use of milk and yogurt. Some examples include

    松仁奶酪 - cheese with pine nuts

    奶豆腐 - A Mongolian influenced item where cow, sheep, and/or mare's milk is mixed, fermented then prepped/sliced into the texture and shape of tofu (with a tart taste of course)

    奶饽饽 - rough translation is milk cake, probably similar in texture to panna cotta based on google images.

    Other variants on the Imperial cuisine involving dairy would be taking milk, sugar, and wine distilled from sticky rice, taking the mixture and roasting it or stir frying.

    Some of these delights can still be enjoyed in Beijing, for example '梅園乳品點

    Last but not least, Guizhou, somewhere southwest of Chongqing, there's a street snack called 奶皮子 that interestingly looks like a dried crepe. Beautiful images on google.

    Amazing what can be found on the net... including a Cheese Institute, headed by a research department dedicated to cheese, at the University in Tianjin!

    13 Replies
    1. re: K K

      Interesting. Looks like you've done your homework. I'm curious about Japanese effects on Taiwanese dining. Did anything come about from Japanese occupation on Taiwan?

      1. re: Silverjay

        Japanese effects on Taiwanese dining....well it's both wide and deep in some areas to say the least. I can only comment from the perspective of a frequent traveler and observer, as my knowledge of the history of Japanese occupation of Taiwan and their direct and indirect influence on the food and culture, is limited.

        For those curious, Japan's occupation of Taiwan did not occur with WWII, but in 1895 via the Treaty of Shimonoseki, where one of the provisions was that the Qing Dynasty cede the island of Taiwan to Japan. The presidential palace as it now stands was erected in 1912, completely Japanese in design. Allied powers destroyed quite a bit of the building during WWII and reconstruction began afterwards. Today it looks as if nothing happened to it.

        It is pretty obvious that Japanese food is prevalent in Taiwan by means of direct import and transplant, of businesses and expats, or locals who trained in Japan to hone their own craft back home. Taiwan is arguably the biggest consumer of everything Japanese (pop culture, music, food, fashion, way of life, lifestyle, tourism etc), arguably more Japanophile types than Hong Kong, and sometimes a visitor can feel like he or she is actually in Japan (on the cheap) while in Taipei. A Japanese friend I spoke with asking a similar question was surprised to hear that Taipei had department stores (and depachika's) like Sogo, Mitsukoshi, Muji (the pseudo Ikea like shop) and well known chain shops...Beard Papa, Mister Donut, Coco Ichibana Curry House, Mos Burger, Kagetsu Arashi ramen, Santouka (I think), and this super tasty Japanese French style bakery (forgot the name but it was in Taipei 101 2 years ago), that depachika coffee shop (Otaru siphon coffee) in Eslite Shinyi, just to name a few.

        The Zhongzhan North Road area of Taipei is heavily concentrated with Japanese run businesses and expats, and also where a lot of hostess bars and authentic eateries can be found, be it Okinawan izakaya, ramen, sushi, yakitori, unagi-ryori, kappo, kaiseki, teuchi udon, or Urasawa/Masa like kappo + sushi places.

        So there are essentially two styles of Japanese food in Taiwan...authentic 100% Japanese and Taiwanese style Japanese (of which the modern fusion eclectic stuff can sometimes be found here). The latter is obviously cheaper, perfect for those who like variety, but certainly not top of the line.

        On the streets level, there are hints of Japanese wherever you go, particularly smaller mom and pop type street food stalls, night markets, or indoor eateries with foldable stools and disposeable chopsticks + spoons.

        - the yam/sweet potato starch powder thickened broths, commonly found in meat stews (rou gan), oyster noodles, chitterling noodles, typically have katsuobushi in them to make the broth more robust. Interestingly on the eastern side of Taiwan in Hualien, there is a museum dedicated to katsuo ( Not sure where the owners picked up the craft of katsuobushi making but it is certainly impressive. The gift shop has some cool tasty samples, including dried snacks seasoned with katsuo. The sorry looking food court even has takoyaki as an excuse to use katsuobushi. It is said that every summer they harvest about 20,000 kilos of bonito off the coast of Hualien.

        - some cooked seafood dishes, be it squid or octopus tentacles, smoked shark's belly (an acquired taste, very very fish), or this insanely fish famous in Tainan cuisine that is called bangus in Filipino cooking...(to name a few items) can be served with soy sauce and paste wasabi to take the edge off. It is hilarious at the same time, but it is good that it is there.

        - consuming sashimi happens a lot in the street food level too, be it a night market stall selling blocks of local fresh fish, or a seafood restaurant where you pick the fish you want, and how you want it prepped (sashimi can one of them). Taipei's major fish market to the NE (Keelung) is a great source for tasty sashimi, from raw prawns (I recall eating a local prawn with green roe in the head that looked like shima ebi), arguably some sea urchin, squid, salmon, non blue fin type tuna and maybe a yellowtail type variant.

        - takoyaki and sometimes taiyaki, can be found at night markets quite easily. Ditto for Oden which is written as 關東煮 or 黑輪 (black wheel), but I don't know enough to tell what the differences are between authentic Japanese oden and the Taiwanese style (as I never tried it).

        - Taiwanese gourmets (and bloggers) go buck wild around I'd say late September-ish or so, when blue fin supposedly swim downward from Japan, passing by the southern western tip of Taiwan (Pintung) where eager fishmen await them. They have blue fin tuna festivals over there annually, and some restaurants cash in on this frenzy by offering multi course blue fin tuna (sashimi and sushi of various cuts included and of course cooked dishes that are more Taiwanese than Japanese). Supposedly one of the best cuts is called something equivalent of se-toro ("triangle oil" in Chinese), which only makes sense in Taiwan or Japan, and even they know over there how rare and precious it is.

        - bento....ok now this is a topic all in itself. Chinese wikipedia claims the word 便當
        originated from the Sung Dynasty, went over to Japan as "弁當". The Fujianese called the packed lunch / lunch box as 飯包 (even the ones that settled in Taiwan from China), but during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895 -1945), the Japanese word bento came back into play. Either way, bento/bien dang 便當 is part of the collective memories of a lot of Taiwanese expats, particularly the ones sold at the train stations of which most have Hakka Taiwanese origins (grilled pork chops and chicken legs were the popular meat staples and still are). Modern bien dang shops like Dinkey Railway Bento (a local chain) try to capitalize on the memory and also try to offer Japanese it fried shrimp, seafood, unagi, and even offer help yourself sauces (one is seasoned with konbu).

        Then there are the Taiwanese style onsens (hot spring spa's) and resorts...a few go as far as emulating Japanese style and try to re-do a ryokan experience, with local takes (and ingredients) on kaiseki. I think I'm only scratching the surface here...

        1. re: K K

          Thanks KK. I'd only add that during the 1895-1945 period, a good few Taiwanese studied in Japan and spoke only Japanese and Taiwanese.

          1. re: scoopG

            When I visited Taiwan with a Japanese friend in the mid-90`s, we used English with younger people and Japanese with older people. Everyone was really friendly.

          2. re: K K

            Interesting stuff....I once met a Taiwanese guy who swore to me that Taiwanese sushi was better than Japanese...BTW, is dairy big in Taiwan? I`ve read in China they are starting to serve milk to school children.

            1. re: Silverjay

              Dairy is widely consumed across the country, but mostly in the form of milk and yogurt. Cheese is available at many supermarkets, western/Euro specialized stores/deli's/fancy restaurants like the L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon's, in probably a similar parallel to metropolitan Japan/Tokyo.

              A year ago I had the pleasure of visiting a beautiful nature farm about 2+ hours drive SW of Taipei county, in Miaoli county (also the heartland of Hakka Taiwanese and regional rustic cuisine, but that's another topic for another time).


              Great family fun, and it is quite interesting that the farm is set up to be a local and visitor's attraction (complete with a petting zoo for goats, sheep, bunny hutch, up close interaction with calves and bottle feeding, chances to milk cows), maybe similar or even copying what they might do in Japan. The fresh milk and yogurt drinks (available cold or very warm) are included in the price of admission, and are amazing in taste and texture. Maybe even similar to Hokkaido milk farms, this nature farm wastes no resources and markets the milk to make numerous products, including candy, ice cream, cookies, and even stealing the oozy egg shaped milk custard from Japan in the farm's restaurant (that looks rather wacky and visually unappetizing...the one in the picture is actually Earl Grey milk tea flavored...), and then there's matcha flavored yogurt topped with azuki as you see in the picture. On top of that, the milk is even used as a hotpot (a very typical countryside farm type of healthy meal), in a striking parallel to parts of Japan where they use soymilk in nabemono broth for kanburi shabu shabu or other meats.

              Hualien in addition to housing the katsuo museum, is also very famous for....mochi. Usually served as a savory item, commonly grilled and served on a skewer at night markets, but also available in many other forms (even the sweet stuff resembling wagashi in many ways, but different).

              Taiwanese sushi better than Japanese? Well it depends on the context and execution. High end kappo + sushi restaurants gain much success by taking Japanese elements, formal training, intimate and classy upscale decor, and applying touches via Taiwanese approaches and local + Japanese ingredients, and even these have varying degrees.

              Here are a few examples:

              This place in particular is said to be one of the top in Taipei (and even used as ammo by that Taiwanese blogger complaining about Yasuda as being more superior), it looks Japanese but there are things about it that don't seem so 100%...


     (kajiki and ebi are local to Taiwan waters


     (this is a sushi boat place, but note the 6th photo...looks like squid, but is actually Chinese cabbage stem


     (nigiri made with a local fish mostly native to Southern Taiwan/west side of the island, normally used for broths, stews, and sometimes served fried, but it appears to have a Japanese and equivalent name too


     - this one is definitely Taiwanese style sushi, but very high end with kappo touches

     - tear dropping beautiful shots of Ponghu sardines being used for nigiri (including the soft tail


     another place

     indoor street food stall style sashimi

              or the blogger's latest entry

     looks 100% Japanese and then some, the head chef is Taiwanese that used to work in a famous hotel's sushi restaurant.

        2. re: K K

          One of the specialties of the Jiangnan region centered on Suzhou (then the most influential city in the southeast - one of the most prominent in Chinese history since at least the Song and up to the rise of Shanghai in the 19th century) in the Ming was milk and milk products.

          1. re: K K

            re: Chinese dairy, on a slightly more modern note, there are various milk/dairy-based desserts, such as steamed milk custard/dun4 nai3, and bubble tea with milk.

            In a similar vein,Japanese yogurt drinks like Yakult and of course Calpico.

            1. re: limster

              Yep of the regional yet rustic like Cantonese dishes is stir fried milk (usually mixed in with egg whites), a very Shunde / Foshan / Zhongshan kind of dish.

              School children in Hong Kong have been drinking bottled cow's milk (likely pasteurised) as well as enjoying chocolate milk during the early 70s (and arguably before that).

              Bubble tea was invented in the early 1980s in Taiwan. Milk tea was enjoyed mostly by the British during their occupation of Hong Kong, but mostly relegated to the upper class and at the fancy hotels for high tea. Hong Kong milk tea came about in the 1950s (before bubble tea with milk) although at that time they used evaporated canned milk (the adding of condensed milk came later), was still considered a pricey item, but it was made more pedestrian so the blue collar types could equally enjoy it.

              1. re: K K

                "Yep of the regional yet rustic like Cantonese dishes is stir fried milk (usually mixed in with egg whites), a very Shunde / Foshan / Zhongshan kind of dish. "

                Ah yes, In Manhattan the version of this with crab meat is a special of (and probably the most often mentioned dish in write ups) of the Poeniz Garden of midtown. Maybe one of thier cooks is from Shunde.

                Though I seem to recall that the writer of one of my favorite Chinese cookbooks (who was also Shundenese) that the milk in Shunde was as likey to be Water Buffalo as cow.

                1. re: jumpingmonk

                  You are correct, stir fried milk in Shunde specifically uses the milk from the water buffalo. Ditto for many other milk based dishes they use. Another Shunde specialty is their stir fried fish cakes, made from local fish paste from a fish I only know as Leng Yu, arguably more fragrant than Chiu Chow style fishballs and fishcakes.

                  1. re: K K

                    Yet another traditional food from Shunde, also made with milk from the water buffalo, is the thin discs of milk preserved in brine. They are simply called Ngau Yu, literally meaning "cow milk". Typically stored in glass jars, they serve as a condiment that is heavenly on plain white rice or in congee.

                    I happen to miss them terribly because I grew up with them, and I can no longer find a source for them where I live.

              2. re: limster

                And domestically manufactured yoghurt is available all over China today...

            2. Fascinating and educational read. Thanks for putting this up.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Jase


                ...BTW, couldn`t edit on my phone but brand is called "Yukijirushi" not "jiroshi". This is their history of cheese page-->


                1. Silverjay: Interesting proposition, considering around 90% of the Japanese population is lactose intolerant (as compared to 2-19% of European descent). So with this "ubiquity" of dairy since Meiji, has the national incidence of lactose intolerance gone down any?

                  Sounds like milk and cheese was forced on the population without any appreciation for LI.

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: kaleokahu

                    Obviously lactose intolerance did and does not stand as severely prohibitive influence since dairy products are ubiquitous and continue to increase in popularity. Plenty of available information out there in English and Japanese both on LI and dairy in Japan. The Japanese term for it is 乳糖不耐症. The two largest dairy companies Snow Brand (Yujijirushi) and Meiji have extensive websites with research sections.

                    The Meiji government started dairies, not mandatory cheese eating policies. Japan is not an entire country with people walking around bent over in discomfort from being force fed milk and cheese. Last night at the train station I saw a small shop selling personal pizzas to go for returning commuters. One of the options was a quattro formaggi pie.

                    1. re: kaleokahu

                      The human body is remarkably adaptable. There's plenty of research showing that lactose intolerant people become less so with greater consumption of milk products. It has more to do with flora and friendly bacteria that builds in the digestive system that help to break down lactose. It doesn't take 2700 years, but a steady diet of lactose for a month or so to get the body to be able to enjoy it. Starting with milk products lower in lactose like aged cheeses or yogurt helps ease the digestive system to accept more lactose. Of course there are degrees of severity of lactose intolerance, but for the most part, the human body can adapt to it easily. I guess the question could be why didn't Japan develop more goat and sheep milk cheeses, which has no lactose?

                      And yeah, I was/am lactose intolerant, but I can enjoy a wide range of milk products with no ill effects.

                      1. re: E Eto

                        E Eto: This is intereresting. I understood LI to spring from the widespread human (75% worldwide) genetic trait in the LCD gene in Chromosome 2 to disable production of the lactase enzyme in the small intestine after childhood.

                        If the condition is genetically coded, then it is likely to be thousands of years before there is a mutant allele that allows lactase persistence in this population.

                        What I think you are talking about is rehabituation therapy. It works in some healthy individuals because bacteria in the COLON to adapt to give some assistance in breaking down lactose.

                        I am glad that you can manage this and enjoy dairy.

                    2. re: kaleokahu

                      japanese appreciation for dairy is tempered with "drinking too much" hurts. also, seem to have the "milk makes bigger" meme from us americans.

                      1. re: Chowrin

                        Mention shoud also be made of Sakura Cheese, which as I understand it, is note as the first "original" (as in unlike any other cheese in the world) cheese Japan has produced, and which has apparently gotten a suprising number of accolades in the cheese world, incuding an award in Switzerland (who certainly know something about cheesemaking). It apparently flavored with leaves of the mountain cherry, so I assume that the cheese has a faint almond-y note

                        1. re: jumpingmonk

                          Is Sakura Cheese sold anywhere in Japan? I have never heard of it, but certainly sounds interesting.

                          1. re: Tripeler

                            The Wikepedia article I first read about the stuff in said it was produced in Hokkaido, so somewhere there'd be where I'd start my seach. If I did find it i'd also go easy on it, no matter how tasty it was. If they are using cherry leaves as a flavoring, that presumably means that the cheese contains trace amounts of cyanide (same as almonds, or cherry kirsh). It is undoubtedly safe to eat in moderate quantites, but depending on how much leaf is used, eating several pounds at once may not be a good idea.

                          2. re: jumpingmonk

                            Sakura is described as having a mild, lemony taste, with a distinctive aroma from the cherry leaves. It is not the only cheese so wrapped. Robiola La Rossa from Italy is also wrapped in cherry leaves that have been steeped in brandy.

                            Juliet Harbutt, an internationally known cheese expert who has published several books, lists nine cheeses from Japan in her recent World Cheese Book. Several are based directly on European cheeses, but there are also a few Japanese originals (besides Sakura). They include Mori No, a washed rind cheese from Honshu; Serendipity, a goat's milk cheese, also from Honshu, preserved in rice oil with locally grown herbs; and Yama No, a nutty Alpine-style cheese made on Hokkaido.

                          3. re: Chowrin

                            Like E Eto, I was/am lactose intolerant, but as an adult have no problem consuming dairy products, except that drinking milk straight (as opposed to over cereal or in coffee) first thing in the morning gives me a stomachache.

                            My cousins, a family of four sisters, live in Okinawa. The youngest sister is taller than the others, and my aunt claims it's because she, as opposed to her older sisters, was the beneficiary of the schools there starting to serve milk regularly to students.

                        2. When l have to send a present to Japanese families who have helped me in my travels, l am asked for cheese. Has happened 10-15 times already. Most of the major dept stores, esp in Tokyo have cheese departments, but the cost is so amazingly high, and selection relatively meager, that it is far better for me to send from the states when l return. There is no duty or customs problems and each shipment has made it perfectly.

                          1. I enjoyed reading this a lot. I always had the notion that the Japanese, like most Asian cultures, tend to be more likely to be lactose-intolerant, and yet, there is no doubt they truly value their dairy products (as seen by the Hokkaido-produced designation everywhere). Reading up on all this background information definitely helped answering my questions.

                            I have vague memories of the Japanese being very creative, from my perspective, with cheese, pairing it with things that we typically do not think about, even back in the 80's and 90's. For example, with breaded pork cutlets, with corn, with eggplant (cooked Japanese style) etc.

                            Now, reading this, I will look forward to experiment the pairing between sake and cream cheese (or something similar)!