I was in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago visiting a friend from Australia and one of the things he asked me to bring along from the US was some cheese. “The more pungent the better. I can’t get real cheese in China,” he wrote to me. A particularly high proportion of Chinese are lactose intolerance – apparently because it has not traditionally been a part of the diet – so cheese is almost completely absent from Chinese cuisine.
I brought along the veiniest slab of Gorgonzola I could find, a block of Brie and a couple slices of harder cheese. He has an 18-month old who tasted a bit of Brie and couldn’t get enough – so much so that he learned how to say the word “cheese” that day. Then my friend fed him a piece of Gorgonzola and he immediately scrunched up his face in confusion before spitting it out.
An article from Slate looks at why Chinese, who can stomach things such as smelly tofu – which, when sold on the street side, can stink up multiple city blocks – but not even the milder cheeses:
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.