Chinese cheese adventures

Posted by Fuchsia on May 20, 2012
Regional cuisines, Unusual delicacies, Yunnan

You can read my piece about making cheese in Lunan County, near the Stone Forest in Yunnan Province, on the BBC website, or listen to the podcast of my voice on the same page. As you’ll see/hear, the kind of cheese they make there is a fresh, unsalted goat’s cheese that is somewhat reminiscent of Cypriot Anari. It’s delicious pan-fried and served with a dip of sugar or salt and Sichuan pepper; steamed with Yunnan ham; or stir-fried with other ingredients.

Another kind of Yunnan cheese just mentioned in passing in that piece is a speciality of the Bai people in northwestern Yunnan, especially Dali. I didn’t make it up there on my most recent trip, but came across it on the streets of Kunming. It’s a really unusual form of cheese known as ru shan 乳扇 (‘milk fans’).

Freshly-made cows’ milk curds are pulled and stretched into thin sheets, wrapped around sticks and hung up until they are yellow and leather dry. They may be served in a number of ways. One of them is to warm and soften them over a charcoal grill, spread them with the filling of your choice (rose-petal jam is the favourite), and then wrap them around a stick so they can be eaten like lollipops.

They are warm and chewy, with what the Han Chinese would say was a strong ‘muttony’ taste 膻味, which is to say a heady whiff of cheesiness, which goes rather well with the floral sweetness of the jam. (In this short video , the narrator warns that people unused to the taste of milk may find their flavour offputting.)

In a restaurant, I also had the chance to try them deep-fried, which was equally exciting: the ‘fans’ look like yellow prawn crackers, and when you bite into them they disintegrate with a very pleasing combination of fragile crispness and soft chewiness.

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5 Comments to Chinese cheese adventures

Great story! When I visited Yunnan two years ago, I had the milk cakes with Yunnan ham, which was quite unique and interesting.

Alana
21 May 2012

Thanks for this – I lived in Kunming for a while and I’ve been trying to explain to people that yes, you can get cheese in China, but no-one has ever heard of it. You’ve brought back memories of ru shan deep fried, with sugar on top, and ru bing stir fried with broccoli or pepper. Mmmmmm. (Is it any wonder I put on about 5kg when out there?). Never tried the rose petal jam but it sounds good!

Fuchsia
21 May 2012

As I said in the BBC piece, it was virtually impossible to find any cheese in Chengdu when I lived there in the mid-1990s, and the thought of ru bing was one of the causes of the great temporary migration of foreign students to Yunnan during the New Year’s holidays!

Alana
21 May 2012

Sorry, yes, you’re right, my ‘no-one’ included non-Yunnanese (is that the right word?) Chinese people. I swear a friend from Hong Kong thinks I’ve made the whole thing up! Will point him to the BBC piece. The cheese was pretty good, I also have fond memoties of the ham and sugar mooncakes.

I’d also like to take the chance to say thanks for the excellent blog, and I love your cookbooks! It’s great to be able to recreate (or attempt to!) the dishes I had out in China.

Andrea Nguyen
21 May 2012

Absolutely fascinating, Fuchsia. It’s not just the making of cheese that’s a wonderment but the manipulation of it that amazes me more. It’s about provenance, localized fare.

I imagine that the deep-fried cheese and grilled cheese lollipops would sell well at American county fairs. Seriously.

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