It seems to be common knowledge that Chinese are not traditional consumers of milk and dairy products. If Chinese consume dairy products at all, they are mostly formulated products.
This is not quite true. First of all, apart from the Han Chinese, China has a number of national minorities of whose cuisines milk has been an important ingredient for centuries. These products have been introduced in Chinese cuisine in areas where their cultures mixed with those of Han Chinese. The emperors of the last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), were not Han Chinese, but Manchus whose dairy products became part of the court cuisine.
Westerners introduced their dairy products, when the first settled in the coastal regions of China. Although Chinese indeed found it hard to learn to appreciate those strongly smelling products, some amalgamation has taken place. It should not be a surprise to learn that the people of Guangdong, in particular of the Pearl River Delta, have developed a number of dishes with milk as the main ingredient. Also see the paragraph on mantou (steamed bread) as dessert in my blog on steamed bread.
We will introduce the best known traditional Chinese dairy products below, sorted by region:
Double skin milk (shuangpinai)
Milk is boiled and a small volume is poured into a small bowl. After cooling a skin is formed. The remaining liquid is poured off carefully to leave the skin intact in the bowl. Fresh milk is mixed with sugar and sieved to remove any solids. This is poured on top of the skin and the bowl is covered with a small dish. The covered bowl is boiled in water for about 15 minutes. [see illustration]
In their efforts to localise, KFC China launched its own version of shuangpinai in 2022.
Fried milk (zhanai)
Milk is mixed with egg white. Then fried ham or other meat shreds are added and the milk is fried in peanut oil. It can be prepared salted or sweetened.
Ginger milk (jiangzhuangnai)
Press juice from ginger and put one spoon of ginger juice in a bowl. A little more will produce a slightly sharper taste, but the volume should not exceed three spoons, lest the flavour of the milk will be covered. Milk is slowly boiled with sugar. The sugar should be equally dissolved. The boiled milk is poured into a larger bowl from a certain height; this should be repeated seven times. The milk is then poured over the ginger juice and the ginger milk can be consumed after 3 – 4 minutes cooling.
Milk tea (naicha)
Milk is boiled with sugar and tea.
We use the word ‘cheese’ here in English, because the Chinese word nailao is currently used to refer to Western cheese. The traditional cheese was introduced in the Northern Chinese cuisine by the Manchus, who ruled China during the last dynastic period. Wine culture and sugar are added to fresh milk and distributed in bowls. The bowls are heated on hot ash and then cooled by ice, which caused the milk to set.
Milk bun (naiwowo) and milk roll (naijuan)
A wowo is a traditional Chinese type of small pyramid shaped bun. Milk wowos and milk rolls are prepared by wrapping milk skin around a sweet filling, like sesame paste, sweetened bean paste, haw thorn paste, etc. The main difference between the two actually is their shape.
Milk is a core ingredient of the Mongolian diet. Besides cow milk, goat, mare and camel milk are also consumed. However, apart from fermented mare milk, most Mongolian dairy products are made from cow milk, as it has the best clotting properties.
Milk bean curd (naidoufu)
Fresh milk is sieved through cloth into a vessel an put aside for one or two days in summer, up to three to seven days in cooler seasons. The fresh milk will start clotting by itself. The clotted milk is softly boiled in warm water, while the whey is slowly pressed out. The resulting curd is kneaded with a spoon or a wooded vessel until an even sticky substance is formed. During the kneading, sugar can be added. The milk is then put in wooden moulds and dried in the sun. The resulting milk bean curd is cut into small strips.
Milk drags (naizha)
The process is the same as for milk bean curd, but without the kneading. Sheep milk is normally used for naizha, as cow milk naizha is not easy to chew.
Curdled milk is wrapped in cloth and pressed using a stone. The resulting solid is called raw cheese. Using milk clotted by boiling (after removing the skin) is called cooked cheese. Cheese is cut into small flakes and sun dried.
Milk curds (nageda)
Naigeda can be regarded as a kind of cheese. Milk is fermented, heated and then sieved through cloth. The resulting mass is kneaded into small pieces of various shapes.
Yoghurt crisp (suannaisu)
Cooked yoghurt is pressed in the same way as cheese. The result is called yoghurt crisp. Cut into small pieces, again in the same fashion as cheese, it is referred to as sour cheese (suanlao). It can be kept for a long time and is said to relieve indigestion.
In 2020, Inner Mongolia decided to invest RMB 230 mln in developing the region’s traditional dairy products. Watch this interesting video giving a visual overview of these products.
A number of the traditional dairy products introduced above are going through various degrees of (semi-)commercial production. The Mongolian dairy products have recently become a genuine vogue in Beijing. More and more Mongolian restaurants are opening and placing plates and bowls with Mongolian dairy products on the table is a typical way to greet a group of guests.
While this can still not be considered real commercial production, Duole Dairy Co., Ltd. (Guangzhou, Guangdong) has launched milk tea packed in plastic cups. It is interesting to see that the Cantonese, who were the most inventive in incorporating milk in their local cuisine, are now also the first to come up with a industrially produced version. It is advertised as prepared with fresh and natural ingredients, quench thirst and relieve fatigue.
Ruiyuan Dairy (Xinjiang) is producing naigeda on an industrial scale. The company has two patents for this new process.
Some of the redesigned traditional dairy products have little in common anymore with the original thing. A good example is the industrially produced naisu by Duoweier Bioengineering (Chifeng, Inner Mongolia). The ingredients list is quite impressive:
Whole milk powder, starch, crystal sugar, vegetable fat, glucose syrup, vegetable oil, additives [emulsifiers (sodium caseinate, glycerol fatty acid ester), stabiliser (sodium biphosphate), silicon dioxide], dextrin, whey powder, water, glucose powder, maltose, cream, lactic acid, citric acid, food flavour
The ancestors of the engineer who formulated this product would be less impressed, but then, they did not face the challenge of large scale production.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.