Yes, there is cheese in China. Despite a high prevalence of lactose intolerance, cheese has been made locally for generations.
When people think of Chinese food, cheese does not usually come to mind. Lactose intolerance is prevalent—in one study, more than 90% of subjects said they were “lactose malabsorbers.”
But there is cheese in China, and locally-made ones, too. Lactose intolerance does not mean people can’t eat cheese, since most lactose is drained out when the curds are separated from whey during the cheese-making process.
Still, the population remains dairy-averse. Most dairy consumption is limited to China’s outer fringes—the northern plains of Inner Mongolia, the western mountains of Tibet, and the southern rainforests of Yunnan Province.
These areas have a rich history of milk and cheese production. Yak milk is a staple of the Tibetan diet, and people in the northern reaches of China consume kumis, a fermented dairy product made from mare’s milk.
Perhaps the most famous cheese product in China is rubing 乳饼, a firm farmer cheese usually made from goat’s milk and sometimes cow’s milk. It’s a specialty of the Bai and Sani people, two ethnic groups clustered around the region of Dali in Yunnan Province.
The cheese is usually served deep-fried, with a sprinkling of sugar to accentuate its light milky flavor. The blocks can also be stretched into thin layers, which are then wrapped around bamboo poles and left to dry to make rushan 乳扇, a lighter, crispier variation of rubing.
“Rubing and rushan are integral to our daily lives.”
“Rubing and rushan are integral to our daily lives,” says Sun Lizhu, a Bai cheese maker in Dali. “They’re artisanal products passed down from our ancestors.”
The Bai people traditionally raised cattle, and the story goes that cheese came about because farmers had an excess supply of milk.
“We didn’t know how to preserve it,” Sun says. “So we came up with the idea of turning them into dairy products, so they could be stored for a longer period of time.”
Though they originate from Dali, rubing and rushan can now be found all over Yunnan Province, usually served as a street snack.
Even though cheese consumption has risen across China—owing to a rising middle class—rubing and rushan are still largely regional staples. The taste for cheese has mostly benefited importers of products from Europe and the Americas.
And the labor required to raise cows has turned away many potential entrants to the industry.
“The profit margins are so thin that nobody wants to learn how to make them,” Sun says, “and no one is willing to put in the hard work.”
For Sun, who has been making cheese for over 40 years, persistence has been the key to maintaining the tradition.
“There’s a poem that’s popular among locals,” she says wistfully. “If in youth, one endures, one will succeed in the future. Looking back in life, after the bitter comes the sweet.”