Cheese culture is spreading. That is to say that European style cheeses are growing more popular in Asia (including India and Sri Lanka). But who will benefit? Is a market being forged for excellent and diverse farmstead cheese where it has never been made or is the New World Order of the Cheese Single being forged?
Large swathes of Asians are famously lactose intolerant, and historic dairy products of Asia like Mongolian mare’s milk Airag or Indian curd (yoghurt),are all lacto- fermented , which means that a lactose intolerant person could ingest the products without any of the unpleasant side effects associated with an upset stomach. A lot of Western dairy produce that is becoming popular in Asia are unfermented, like the ever popular 'Pizza Cheese' and sweet creamy products. These contain relatively high amounts of Lactose, or milk sugars, and its not just people with Lactose Intolerance that could benefit from fermented dairy products and all the wonderful and wild microbial activity that our tamed 2018 stomachs are yearning for. Everyone needs more fermented food in their
Mouldy Cheese Ban lifted in China
Last year , China lifted a ban on Moldy dairy products (that is to say: most cheese.) The result: a huge opportunity. Companies in Mongolia are scrambling to make the most of this potentially huge market. As well as the expats in China, Chinese people themselves are eating more cheese. Tofu sales are still strong but the allure of cheese is showing in the market.
Mongolia is a country consisting of vast grassland with a hugely diverse amount of milking animals. The Mongolian people drink goat milk, camel milk, cow milk and yak milk. These animals reflect the different climates of the country. The incredibly dry and windy climate of the steppes and the nomadic lifestyle of the herders means that the most popular Mongolian cheese- Aro- is dried. Aro is made by turning milk into yoghurt, draining it and then drying the remaining curds on the roofs of yurt. The affair is a family one, with everyone involved in the summer work of shaping the cheese into small bricks or decorative little biscuits for festivals and laying it on the yurts for drying.
These dried cheese bricks are unappealing to the western palate, being extremely sour and painful on the teeth. Not just chewy but sometimes rock hard. However, this is the Mongolian dairy culture. Proud and useful cheese to be taken on journeys, cheese that doesn’t need a cool and humid cave to age in, which makes sense in a flat and dry county. This is warrior cheese and when you’re in Mongolia you’ll see people sucking on their hard cheese as they go about their work- milking cattle, herding, building yurts. Eating this hard cheese is also a way of cleaning your teeth on the road.
Another fermented dairy product that is popular is Urum, a sort of cream fermented in a Cow or Yak's stomach. It is a potent, tangy and crumbly butter with a faintly meaty taste.
Undoubtedly there is a growing market for cheese in Asia but let’s work towards filling the gap with outstanding produce and most importantly learning from their dairy traditions. The dairy foodstuffs produced there, which are virtually unheard of by Western 'Cheese Aficionados' show us that we have more to lean than them from us. In fact, there are many excellent books dedicated to making artisanal European cheese, but how many on strong tasting dairy products from the rest of the world?
The yoghurt in India sold in small clay pots, the butter in Mongolia fermented in a cow or yak stomach and the Alcoholic Mare’s milk are all delicious traditions to match our own. We have nearly lost the diverse cheese culture we once enjoyed. A slow eradication of small batch dairy ferments could be a ticking time bomb for gut health in Asian countries, as it has been in ours.
We need to support and appreciate the dairy cultures in places like Mongolia, India and Sri Lanka rather than export taste buds for cheese singles and sugary cream cakes onto them. The Kimchi revolution is upon us but what about the Urum or Aro revolution? More collective ferment recipes means more microbes means more gut diversity for all.
Fermenting the future is the way forward.
Cheese made from boiled down and dried whey in Mongolia. It is rock hard and tastes vaguely meaty.
Winter on a small Mongolian dairy farm near Ulan Bataar.