Monday, May 30, 2011

Chinese Chefs Taste Cheese

As many here know, the CC is a big fan of Fuchsia Dunlop and her two books on authentic Chinese cooking. She is the first foreigner (and woman) to train at the famous Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu.

Here, she writes about her experience with having chefs taste cheese which is basically milk that has been precisely spoilt.
Cheese is not a favourite food in China, to put it mildly. Traditionally, dairy products were associated with the nomadic people who lived on the fringes of China and who were regarded as fearful barbarians. The Han Chinese, with a few notable exceptions, avoided eating dairy foods altogether: many were, and still are, lactose-intolerant. Cheese, however, is still generally regarded as beyond the pale. A few sophisticated Shanghainese might eat Stilton just as sophisticated Londoners eat tripe and chitterlings, but many people, especially in the provinces, have never tasted it.

Over several visits to Shaoxing, I wondered what the locals, such ardent lovers of rotted soymilk and vegetable stalks, would make of rotted cow’s milk, otherwise known as cheese. Finally, I returned to Shaoxing with a boxful of artisanal cheeses from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, including the smelliest I could find in the shop. I had selected one mild hard cheese, Isle of Mull, to serve as a kind of toe-in-the-water; Stichelton, which is an unpasteurised version of Stilton; pale, veined Harbourne Blue; Ardrahan, a fairly whiffy washed-rind cheese that I adore; Milleens, another washed-rind variety with a punchy, farmyardy aroma that acquires a hint of ammonia as it ripens; and a wildly smelly Brie de Meaux. By the time I reached Shaoxing after a week on the road, the cheeses had all ripened nicely, and some were beginning to ooze.

At the Xianheng, a waitress cut the cheeses into pieces, and the assembled tasters began to pick them up with their chopsticks, sniffing and tasting. And where I had been impressed by what cheese and stinky soya products had in common, these culinary professionals were immediately struck by their differences. “Although in some ways you could say the flavours of cheese and fermented beancurd are similar,” said Mao, “vegetable stinky foods are very clean and clear in the mouth (qing kou), and they disperse quickly, while milky foods are greasy in the mouth (ni kou), they coat your tongue and palate, and they have a long, lingering aftertaste.”

Two other chefs said the cheeses had a heavy shan wei (muttony odour), an ancient term used by southern Chinese to describe the slightly unsavoury tastes associated with the northern nomads. Another said that the selection “smells like Russians”. “The difference,” he added, “is that the stinky things Chinese people eat give them smelly breath, while stinky dairy things affect the sweat that comes out of your skin.”
The entire article is fascinating!

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