Cheese for Chinese

Apparently the makers of Stilton, that delicious blue-veined English cheese, are to start exporting it to China! 

As is widely known, the Chinese traditionally have little taste for cheese. In the past, eating it was seen as a barbarian habit.  The American anthropogist E.N. Anderson mentions in his The Food of China that he once heard it described as ‘the mucous discharge of some old cow’s guts, allowed to putrefy’ – a quote I always like to repeat to Westerners expressing disgust at Chinese eating habits.

When I lived in Chengdu in the 1990s, it was impossible to buy any cheese except for small packages, exorbitantly priced, of some horrible processed stuff – and even this was available only at the city’s single backpackers’ cafe, the Flower Garden. This was why, when a British TV producer for whom I’d done a little translation work asked me if her crew could bring me anything from London, the first thing that came to my mind was cheese. A week later, a large piece of Stilton, perfectly ripe, was handed over to me in a hotel lobby – it was such a treat I threw a dinner party in its honour.  

I’ve had little success in introducing cheese to my own Chinese friends. Most of them find it pretty revolting, if they’re willing to taste it at all. I’m very curious as to how the Stilton venture will go, particularly as Stilton is towards the more extreme end of the cheese scale in terms of its smell and appearance. The European ex-pat community will be thrilled, no doubt, but will they be able to persuade the locals to give it a try?

7 Responses to “Cheese for Chinese”

  1. James in Beijing

    Even now in Beijing cheese is rather exorbitantly priced, and the selection is relatively limited. And woe betide anyone who would bring cheese in from overseas in their suitcase, since there are now sniffer beagles at the airport who are there not to sniff out narcotics but rather dairy products! I lost a lovely Spanish Mahon to the darned beagle after Chinese New Year; wonder if they will also eat up the Stilton!

  2. James

    “if they’re willing to taste it at all”

    Some sociological observations and questions, if I may… (Sorry if this is long-winded.)

    Are we, in the West, more tolerant and adventurous when it comes to dining? If so, is this a cultural trait?

    Or, is our observation of this skewed by self-selection? Are we as individuals who enjoy a wide variety of cuisines more likely to select as friends and colleagues others who share our open-minded approach to cuisines?

    As a Californian, I’m fortunate to have a very wide variety of cuisines available to me. There’s a large Asian community here that has brought their cuisine, but that’s not all. Recently, there’s been a trend towards Brazilian Rodizio, with new high-end restaurants opening in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and now San Mateo. (Just after I had the pleasure of experiencing that approach in Rio!) But I also recall growing up on the East Coast of the US in the 1960’s when exotic international cuisine was pasta and Americanized Chinese food.

    I travel a fair bit in the US, and in many parts of the US, it is still like that. In big cities, you can find decent international food, but it may take some looking, but get outside the cities and you’re back in what I described as the 1960’s.

    I remember visiting China in 2001 and while I had a lot of interesting meals, outside a few locations there wasn’t much variety. I’ll admit I wasn’t looking for western food, but the tour group went to a western restaurant in Beijing, “The Courtyard” and late at night in Guilin I found a grilled cheese sandwich. So, I suspect if one looks hard enough, one can find it. (Then again, I don’t know what I’d say about the quality. I remember some Thai friends treated me to dinner at an “Italian” restaurant in Bangkok that was one of the more bizarre meals I’ve had!)

    In the end, I think I tend to lean towards self-selection more than cultural, with some mix of opportunity. People tend to bond over meals, and sharing their food-interests. The friendships can lead to expanding taste — when I was a grad student in Scotland I cooked a Chinese banquet for my friends that introduced them to new flavors. Similarly, common tastes can strengthen friendships — the founder of Beijing Scene and I corresponded because we’re alumni of the same school, and when he moved to basketball the friendship was strengthened over hot pots and Sichuan dinners.

    Anyway… Since you’ve traveled more than I, in your opinion, how much is cultural, and how much is self-selection?

  3. quadruple boiled soups

    Chinese diets are surely being Westernized: if you’ve acquired the taste for cheese in a hamburger you’re not too far away from eating ‘proper’ cheese. My mum hates cheese without exception. I like it, as do many of my contemporaries.

  4. mel

    Given the increasing amount of wine and the number of western style bakeries we saw on our recent trip to southwest China, can cheese be far behind?

  5. admin

    I certainly don’t think that Westerners are inherently more open-minded about food. When I was growing up in Oxford, my mother was a very adventurous cook, and this was regarded as eccentric by many friends and neighbours. She remembers taking some home-made hummus to a bonfire-night party – it was greeted with GREAT suspicion. And when I was a teenager, I recall having to endure jokes about the fact that my mother ate goat’s cheese – hard to believe now, when it appears on almost every European restaurant menu!

    These days, most of my friends in London are willing to eat pretty much anything I put before them (although some were not mad keen on the numbing-and-hot insects I produced as a snack after one dinner party…), but I do still meet people who are suspicious about Chinese food.

    In my experience, tastes can change very quickly. Two of the chefs I took to California in 2004 (you can read about their traumatic dinner at the French Laundry in the ‘Cultural Shock’ article flagged up on the ‘articles’ page of this website!) came to England a couple of years later, and were much more adventurous. By then they were open to experiencing ‘western food’, and even able to appreciate much of what they tasted.

    When I lived in China in the mid-1990s there were virtually no ‘western restaurants’ – now there are many, and I find that my Chinese friends are being led to them by their children.

    Who knows, perhaps even Stilton will catch on…

  6. Scott

    I have an email order cheese business if you need any type of Ghouda Cheese sent anywhere in China. Please feel free to email me. We have many types of Ghoudas and Cheddar. Our cheese are all Natural Farmhouse Cheese made by a Dutchy in China. Don’t settle for the tasteless cheese slices. Aussie Scott

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