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Sep 8, 2012 01:09 PM

No dairy products in Asia?

The thread about (not) putting cheese on certain Italian dishes got me thinking. I can't think of any Asian dishes that use any dairy products. Do they use butter? Cheese? Milk? I love Asian food just the way it is but, I'm just curious.

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  1. You mean now? Or traditionally?

    There have always been custards and puddings (e.g. Egg Tarts). But traditionally, milk (and related dairy products) have been primarily a Western affectation.

    But nowadays, there is as much cheese, milk and other dairy products in the entire continent of Asia as there is here in the Western Hemisphere (e..g boba milk teas, ice cream, etc.).

    34 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Thanks, ipse. I wasn't aware of that. I can only go by what I've seen and eaten of Chinese, Thai and Phillipino foods. I don't think Japanese cooking uses any and I'm not sure about Vietnamese. I don't just order typical American style dishes. None have used any dairy products.

      1. re: mucho gordo

        It is certainly limited in traditional Asian (that's a very VERY broad term by the way) cuisines, unless you count things like soybean milk (Chinese) or coconut milk (SE Asia like Thai, Malay) as "dairy".

        But nowadays, it's much pretty a global smorgasbord of culinary orgies and in-breeding, n'est–ce pas?

        1. re: ipsedixit

          Oui, mais certainment, m'sieur and I don't consider soy/coconut milk to be dairy

          1. re: mucho gordo

            You should read this previous discussion by Silverjay which gives a nice historical layout of the milk in Japanese cuisine, the follow-up posts by KK are also very helpful.


            1. re: mucho gordo

              Do you consider eggs to be dairy? As ipse has mentioned, eggs have been used in Chinese cooking for a very long time.

              What *is* your definition of "dairy products"?

              1. re: huiray

                Actually, I haven't considered eggs to be dairy although I know some do.

                1. re: huiray

                  dairy comes out of a 4-legged ruminant. it's not the same as the section of the supermarket.

              2. re: ipsedixit

                In addition to ipsedixit's link, see the following existing threads covering the same ground:

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

                Cheese and Asian food

                Cheese in Chinese Cuisine

                very curious about where the cheese ends in asia

              3. re: mucho gordo

                definitely not a historical norm, but modern japanese cooking uses a fair amount of dairy. yogurt, drinking yogurt, milk, flavored milk, milk tea, ice cream, frozen yogurt, pizza, cream sauces, cream cheese, mild cheeses, cheese-filled breads, puddings, custards, whipped toppings, BUTTER! examples of dairy in japanese diet/cuisine:

                tarako or mentaiko cream spaghetti
                (royal) milk tea
                rare cheesecake
                mochi-cheese okonomiyaki
                nori-cheese-stuffed tebasa yakitori
                butter ramen
                cream taiyaki
                milk in kyuushoku (school lunch)
                cream chowder
                gratin pasta
                strawberry/banana/peach/melon/etc au lait
                buttered corn
                kimchi-cheese chahan
                cream chowders
                castella cake
                cheese-chicken-mayo onigiri
                pizza man
                cheese curry/cheese curry katsu
                pizza toast
                soft cream
                starbucks drinks
                tuna-cheese crepes

                i always chuckle at the "lactose intolerance in asia" thing because i know every schoolchild in japan drinks at least one serving of milk daily from first grade through ninth grade. minimum. not to mention the prevalence of yogurt, cheese, cream cheese, cream, butter, and other milk products in japan. there's also the rising popularity of more "aggressive" cheeses as wine also rises in popularity. maybe i'm crazy, but anecdotal as well as more formal data supports that dairy, albeit often in smaller quantities per serving, is a common and rising element in the modern japanese diet.

                1. re: chartreauxx

                  Lactose intolerance in small children is rarer, since there is a basic evolutionary need for all humans to digest milk when young. The ability to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, decreases after childhood. I wasn't seriously lactose intolerant until my mid-twenties, as seemed to be the case with everyone in my family (Ashkenazi Jews). That doesn't stop some of them from hitting the cream cheese and sour cream (but I can assure you, they aren't so fun to be around after they do).


                  1. re: butterfly

                    the studies i've seen indicate that continued consumption of dairy at certain levels actually impacts lactase production throughout life in most people, but i could be wrong...

                    that said, i'm also ashkenazi (father's side, i know i know, it doesn't "really" count then right? ;-) )! maybe we're distantly related! lol

                    1. re: butterfly

                      Yes, I ate tons of dairy until I turned 60. Now I'm somewhat dairy intolerant (I'm an Asian American). Some of my relatives also became dairy intolerant in their 50's and 60's. Keep in mind that one can be dairy intolerant but not lactose intolerant. Some people lose the ability to digest the protein in dairy products.

                      1. re: butterfly

                        My mom became quite severely lactose-intolerant in her early 50's and out of the blue, too. I love dairy but realize it's ideally suited to nurturing the young of the species that produces it.

                      2. re: chartreauxx

                        the japanese are lactose intolerant, in general. that doesn't mean you can't drink milk, it just gives indigestion if you have too much.

                        1. re: Chowrin

                          In my local supermarket here in Tokyo there are tons of dairy products, ranging from all kinds of milk and yogurt to many kinds of cheese, but mostly the cheese is not real, though all of the imported cheese is. I find it hard to believe that most Japanese are lactose intolerant. I think that in the past 40 years they have largely lost this trait.

                          1. re: Tripeler

                            Agreed, I know in the past not as much dairy was eaten, and I know my family here does have pretty easy to upset stomachs, but they seem to be able to stomach some dairy. While the crap cheese is eaten by them sometimes, yogurt seems to have gotten very popular, and everyone seems to have at least 1 a day with no trouble. And whenever I go to the bar, everyone is drinking kawaii pink and green cream based drinks so I think the younger generations are getting over any past intolerance. They love their cream pastas too, and their ebi gratins.

                            1. re: Tripeler

                              Primary lactose intolerance is genetically encoded on chromosome 2 in the lactase persistence allele. If adult Japanese have truly gained lactase persistence through genetic evolution within 40 years that would be remarkable.

                              1. re: huiray

                                Yes, that may be so, but for a so-called "lactose intolerant" population, there is certainly a remarkable amount of milk consumed in Japan.

                                1. re: Tripeler

                                  When did something's not being good for someone stop them from consuming it, especially if it tastes good and is considered "hip," to boot? And have to agree with the 40 years' genetic evolution. I suspect it would not only be remarkable but unique. I would also add that there's a lot of lactose intolerance among Jews (note butterfly's previous posts) but it hasn't kept Israel from having a thriving dairy industry or, on a somewhat more ancient level, the book of Leviticus from enjoining people not to mix milk from permitted animals with meat.

                                  FWIW, I've read anecdotes to the effect that the lactose-intolerant sometimes have an easier time with raw milk.

                                  1. re: Tripeler

                                    it gives bigger breasts. or so my manga say.

                                    1. re: Chowrin

                                      I must say, you've got some fascinating points of view from a lactic perspective: "defective Europeans," "bigger breasts..." Undoubtedly given short shrift in some mainstream scientific circles but interesting nonetheless.

                                      1. re: MacGuffin

                                        "defective" just means sports -- freaks if you will. naturally I haven't done any research on whether lactose-tolerance is actually a "good survival trait" or whether it's linked to one.
                                        And repeating a point of cultural reference ought not to be understood as anything remotely scientific (just bolstering your point on it being "hip")

                                        1. re: Chowrin

                                          I know what "defective" means. And cultural or not, "breast growth" involves biology which involves scientists and their circles. I stand by "interesting."

                                  2. re: huiray

                                    how long have the japanese people (not Ainu) actually been on the islands? not over 3000 years? do you know of any studies that show that there is primary lactose intolerance among a high percentage of Japanese people? is it possible that it's a recessive quality and not as widespead as all that? just some quesitons.

                                    1. re: Jerome

                                      sources linked at bottom.
                                      otherwise a quick search on pubmed.

                                      1. re: Chowrin

                                        since you've checked the sources, is it a recessive gene? it's certainly found worldwide even among populations who routinely consume cow's milk products.

                                        1. re: Jerome

                                          they're calling lactose tolerance dominant, so yeah.

                                      2. re: Jerome

                                        Did you read the review article (full text) I linked to?

                                        In the "Prevalence of lactose intolerance" section one reads:
                                        [Quote] "The decline in lactase expression is usually complete during childhood but the decline has also been reported to occur later in adolescence.33 The rate of loss of lactase activity also varies according to ethnicity but the physiological explanation for this difference in timing is currently unknown. Chinese and Japanese lose 80–90% of lactase activity within 3–4 years after weaning, Jews and Asians lose 60–70% over several years postweaning and in white Northern Europeans it may take up to 18–20 years for lactase activity to reach its lowest expression.5" [Unquote]
                                        For your convenience here is the citation again:

                                        Yes, the allele/gene that results in lactase non-persistence is a recessive one. However, most Chinese and Japanese carry two copies of the gene.
                                        See also pg 257 of the Science Progress article cited below.

                                        Most Japanese *can* drink some milk (200 mL) without showing symptoms of intestinal distress. This is also borne out by the anecdotal observations of many who have posted on this thread. However, by the standards of measurement of lactose malabsorption (hydrogen test, etc) indicating possible lactose intolerance, Japanese adults are largely lactase non-persistent.
                                        Some citations:
                               Read the full text preview, not just the abstract at the top.
                               The full pdf is available (free) from that page also.

                                        There are many others which require approval or payment for full access.

                                        A larger (rambling) paper [Science Progress article] with more detail and nuances, including discussion on the possible role of microflora or probiotic bacteria in the large intestine (see pgs 255, 271-272):
                               The full pdf (free) is available from that page.
                                        [Other papers also mention the possible role of probiotic bacteria in waylaying symptoms of intestinal distress, including possibly in the Japanese?]

                                        1. re: huiray

                                          thanks for the synopsis. I am perfectly fine reading your summary which meets my curiosity on the subject. And how great that others now have aaccess to this information. you seem quite well informed on the subject.

                                    2. re: Tripeler

                                      Unless Godzilla is also going to emerge from Tokyo Bay, the Japanese have not altered their genetic code in just 40 years. My fridge has several kinds of cheese, milk and yogurt, but I am still lactose intolerant. I just bear the discomfort or take a pill.

                                      1. re: JungMann

                                        LOL--good one! (And I rest my case.)

                                      2. re: Tripeler

                                        can i please refer you to the legend of strawberry milk (google for it!)

                                  3. re: mucho gordo

                                    While milk is not a large component of the traditional Filipino diet, dairy does make its ways into a number of foods, mainly snacks and dessert, especially those which are a product of the Spanish and American colonial legacy. Leche flan, cheese pimiento and ensaymada are the first things that come to mind. Kesong puti is a native cheese made from carabao milk. On the topic of cheese and seafood taboos, baked mussels with cheese are a popular appetizer. But while dairy products are represented in the Filipino canon, overall dairy consumption remains low for a variety of factors, including the lack of domestic production and the low purchasing power of the average consumer.

                                2. Asia is 61% of world's population (2011 per ) so rather too broad a categorization. Some parts of Asia use dairy regularly (e.g. India), some rarely (e.g. China). According to Joanna Waley-Cohen in "Food, the History of Taste" (p. 103) dairy fell into disfavor in China in part because of its association with the Mongols.

                                  10 Replies
                                  1. re: drongo

                                    Now, that's interesting. Thanks, drongo

                                    1. re: drongo

                                      Thank you. Reading someone call dairy a "Western Affectation" kind of made me giggle given the uses of dairy (ghee?) in South Asian cooking. Central Asian cuisine has dairy too. And let's not forget that Iran and Afghanistan are part of Asia as is the Middle East (although I could understand if the proximity to N. Africa threw some folks.

                                      1. re: Lizard

                                        Ghee Whiz! I'd forgotten about that.

                                      2. re: drongo

                                        Adult East Asian populations (Han Chinese, Japanese, etc) also continue to be very largely genetically lactose intolerant to this day. It wasn't just that "...dairy fell into disfavor in China in part because of its association with the Mongols...". Much of the modern-day eating of cheeses, ice cream, etc in Japan/China etc etc does correlate with adoption of Western diets and/or affectations as ipse describes it. Most people *can* take some dairy before they get sick or feel intestinal distress - it doesn't mean that they die immediately from having some dairy. But yes, it definitely is not a part of traditional Chinese cuisine &etc.

                                        @ mucho gordo: As drongo and Lizard also point out, dairy is consumed in South Asia, West Asia, Central Asia (and some would consider Tibet, e.g., as part of this region), North Asia.

                                        1. re: huiray

                                          Good point, huiray... it leads to a chicken-and-egg question:
                                          Did people become lactose-intolerant because they abandoned dairy, or did they abandon dairy because they became lactose-intolerant?
                                          Or we could put the question the other way:
                                          Did people remain lactose-tolerant because they kept eating dairy, or did they keep eating dairy because they remained lactose-tolerant?

                                          1. re: drongo

                                            Given the geographic distribution of lactose tolerance (Uncommon among northern Europeans, common among Africans as well as East Asians), I'm inclined to think that being lactose *tolerant* is the adaptation to an environment that was better-suited to dairying than to some other forms of agriculture.

                                            It should be noted that aged cheeses are very low in lactose and only people who are severely lactose intolerant would be affected by it, so its unlikely that a culture where cheese consumption was well-established would abandon it on the basis of lactose intolerance. Cultured products like yogurt are also tolerated better by people who are only mildly lactose intolerant and butter/ghee has virtually no lactose, so again, lactose intolerance would not be a factor.

                                            1. re: drongo

                                              Everything I have read about this suggests that natural selection in Europe favored those who had a genetic mutation that enabled them to tolerate milk into adulthood. Here's one article that discusses this:


                                              And a fascinating article about milk drinking in Europe that is peripherally related to the subject:


                                              1. re: butterfly

                                                I have also heard that one of the reason lactose tolerance became so prevalent in Northern Europe/scandanavia was that it gave a particualr advantage there. In areas where the growing season is short, and therefore certain foods (especially leavy green vegetables) were in short supply for much of the year; the ability to disgest milk gave additional acess to critical vitamins.

                                                1. re: jumpingmonk

                                                  it's more the lack of yogurts and other lactose-free milks, but yeah.

                                              2. re: drongo

                                                What an odd question.
                                                it's the europeans that are defective, and because they had to drink milk to survive.

                                          2. Fried milk - a sweet dim sum dish
                                            Lots of Indian desserts use milk products like rasgulla, gulab jamun etc.
                                            In Singapore, we have fish soup at hawker centres that hawkers sometimes add condense milk, it's optional and up to patrons liking

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: keepquiet

                                              Wanted to add,aside fr thier sweets, u can find dairy In Indian savory dishes as well. Paneer , a indian cottage cheese-like thing, is commonly used . Example dishes are Palak paneer and saag paneer. Yogurt n cream are also used for thickening for certain type of curries.

                                              Japanese cheesecake uses dairy. Unlike the rich and creamy American cheesecake, it s a lot lighter and not so sweet. Think of it as a dense soufflé or angel cakes, eggs need to be separated
                                              and the whites peaked. It also has no crust. It's one of my favourite sweet treats.

                                            2. Since I'm a wiseass, let me say that Krab Rangoon contains dairy and that's a genuine traditional Chinese dish, right?


                                              4 Replies
                                                1. re: drongo

                                                  Actually, on second thought, it *would* be considered as a "traditional" Chinese dish by many, MANY folks in the general USAmerican populace...

                                                  I sometimes have to pick my eyebrows up off the floor after reading reviews of some "Chinese" restaurant (note double quotation marks) on some forum like Yelp where the diner raved about how wonderful the Krab Rangoons were and how they showed the "authenticity" of the place.

                                                    1. re: mucho gordo

                                                      Yes, mucho gordo......... I know bugger-all about "genuine traditional Chinese" cuisine except that Krab Rangoon is not part of it, lol.

                                                  1. what about tibetan diet? yak butter tea, anyone? or mongolian diet? where dairy is one of its MAJOR elements. or russian (northern asia), using butter or sour cream? yogurt and kefir also appear in lots of central/north asian cuisines... and especially, non-cow dairy, like sheep or goat, isn't unusual in much of asia...

                                                    6 Replies
                                                    1. re: chartreauxx

                                                      Actually, there ARE some tradtional Chinese dishes that include dairy, there just rather rare. The Yunnanese make goat cheese, and have for centuries. One of the fancier Chiense resturaunts in NYC I know makes a dish called "Stir fried fresh milk with crab". It's sort of like a cross between scrambled eggs and an omelette (it's actually very pleasant to pick up as takeway, put in the fridge, and have for breakfast the following day) And as far as I can tell, (from a little web reaseach, it actually is a legitamate Cantonese dish. I used to have a cookbook called "The Chinese Gourmet" which incuded a few milk containing dishes, since the author was brought up in Shunde, where they did use milk. Acoording to him, one of the big reasons that milk isn't widely used in Chinese cooking isnt just the latose isse; it's that in that part of the world, most places that use milk like to get it from Water Buffalo, not cows, so milk tends to be confined to those areas where Water Buffalo are common; common enough to not worry that taking milk from your buffalo isn't going to damage you future livelyhood (by risking having your next calf not be as strong as it could possibly be).

                                                      1. re: jumpingmonk

                                                        One of the specialities of that very special city, Suzhou, in the Ming was dairy products. Original sources do not specify what sort.

                                                        1. re: jumpingmonk

                                                          Is your "one of the fancier restaurants" reference to Phoenix Garden by any chance? I remember when they were a hole in the wall in the Elizabeth St. arcade years ago and in fact, that dish was the first I ordered there (long before I became a vegetarian). They're still not fancy but the item's still on the menu.

                                                          1. re: MacGuffin

                                                            That's the one, I called it fancier to compare it to the numerous little "hole in the wall places" around. And they've gone a little more upscale ever since they moved to Midtown.

                                                            1. re: jumpingmonk

                                                              I haven't been there in awhile but have always liked it (especially the snow pea leaves which are out of this world). I still wouldn't call it fancy but I really do miss that there aren't as many of those little holes in the wall as there used to be. I liked being able to pick up perfectly decent cheap eats when the mood struck.

                                                              I remember really liking the fried milk; I actually sought out Phoenix Garden years ago because Seymour Britchky glowingly reviewed it and singled out the fried milk as one of his favorites. I remember thinking it was an especially nice cold-weather dish.

                                                              1. re: MacGuffin

                                                                Agreed. Though in the interest of being honest (as opposed to nice) I have to say I really don't like thier iteration of Lo Mein (that is, fat udon noodles and no sauce except oil) But I do like thier mai fun (well their home style mai fun) so that's alright. I suppose the problem is that Lo Mein as most americans are used to it is really a northern Chinese dish. I imagine PG's verison must be some sort of Cantonese variation.