Chinese cheese: A taste of 'milk cake' in Yunnan

Bowls of food including stir-fried cheese with broad beans

The Chinese, as a nation, are not keen on dairy foods and many are uncomfortable with the very idea of cheese - so the cheese-loving inhabitants of the south-western province of Yunnan are far from typical.

The strange rock formations, sprouting out of the red-brown earth, are a sign that we are approaching the Stone Forest, one of Yunnan's great scenic attractions.

But we are not here for the scenery.

Instead, I am on my way with my friend Bi Wei, a chef from the provincial capital, to investigate a peculiar cottage industry: the making of what local people call "ru bing" or "milk cakes", but Westerners would call cheese.

Before long we arrive at quiet village in Lunan County, where Bi Wei's friend Luo Wenzhi welcomes us at the gate of her farmhouse.

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The last place I had ever expected to have a lesson in cheese-making was China”

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Soon I am crouching on the floor of her goat shed, trying to milk a goat for the first time in my life.

Mrs Luo holds the twitching animal's leg while I squeeze one of its bulging teats, tugging briskly downwards.

After a few failed attempts, sharp jets of milk shoot into the metal cup, which begins to fill with the warm, creamy liquid.

When I have finished, Mrs Luo swiftly milks the other nine goats, and we return to her kitchen to start making cheese.

Luo Wenzhi milking a goat

The last place I had ever expected to have a lesson in cheese-making was China.

Historically, dairy foods have been largely absent from the Chinese diet, and cheese almost unknown.

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It is believed the ancient Chinese avoided dairy products to draw a line between themselves and barbarians”

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When I was a student here in the 1990s, it was impossible to find cheese in the major provincial city where I lived, and none of my Chinese friends had ever tasted it.

More recently, when some chefs in eastern China were invited to taste a variety of cheeses, they found them smelly and greasy, and complained of a muttony taste.

And while some chic city-dwellers are beginning to enjoy cheese, in most parts of the country it is still regarded as weird and alien. But in this part of Yunnan, so-called milk cakes are a famous local speciality.

In her kitchen, Mrs Luo strains and boils her milk, and then stirs in some vinegar to make it separate into cloud-like curds in a sea of whey.

She scoops some of the curds into a bowl and hands them to me to eat, still warm from the stove.

They are soft and slightly elastic, with a glorious richness and a delicate flavour.

And I am struck by how similar the snack is to tofu, which is made in almost exactly the same way, and can be served just like this, in its whey, with a dash of syrup or a chilli oil sauce.

Curds resting on a wet cheesecloth

Mrs Luo pours the rest of the curds into a wet cheesecloth, squeezes out the whey and then lays a heavy stone on top so they can settle overnight.

This plain, unsalted cheese is the only kind they make here in Lunan.

In north-western Yunnan, they stretch the warm curds into sheets that are wrapped around sticks and left to dry - known as "ru shan" or "milk fans", these sheets can be warmed on a grill, spread with rose-petal jam and wrapped around a stick to be eaten like a lollipop.

But these are isolated examples.

In most parts of China, even where people keep cows and goats, locally-made cheese simply does not exist.

The Chinese may be in all other respects the world's most inventive eaters, but they have paid little attention to the creative possibilities of milk.

Perhaps it is because the soybean and tofu gave them the nutrition offered by dairy foods elsewhere.

But it is also widely believed that the ancient Chinese avoided dairy products because they wanted to draw a line between themselves and the barbarians who roamed the steppes on the borders of the country.

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And even if in Yunnan, "milk cake" is regarded as part of a Chinese regional cuisine, there is no escaping the fact that this region is a special case.

The province lies on the fringes of China, its population a hotchpotch of nationalities whose dietary habits are far removed from those of the Han Chinese.

And although Mrs Luo's Han Chinese neighbours also make cheese, she herself is a member of the Yi ethnic minority - a reminder that dairy foods were never really part of the Chinese mainstream.

But if cheese eating still has a whiff of foreignness about it, the way in which it is eaten here is distinctly Chinese.

After our labours, Bi Wei and I sit down with Mrs Luo's family for a farmhouse lunch.

There are several dishes served with rice, which we eat with chopsticks: fermented tofu and pickled radish, cured pork with garlic stems, potato slivers with dried chilli and, of course, cheese.

Some of the cheese has been sliced and fried until golden on both sides. The rest Mrs Luo has cut into cubes and stir-fried in a wok with some new broad beans.

Stir-fried cheese, I think to myself - now that is something you would only find in China.

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