When one thinks of traditional Chinese cuisine, dairy is often not the first food group that comes to mind. But in fact, China is the second-largest consumer and third-largest producer of dairy in the world.
A long-time academic and expert on Chinese culture, Thomas DuBois analysed the history of the Chinese dairy industry in a lecture Monday. He examined the history through three lenses — production, consumption and meaning — and tackled the myth of Chinese cultural aversion to dairy.
“The story of dairy in China is a story of scale, everything gets bigger, everything gets more efficient, production increases,” DuBois said. “We start in 1900 with no organized dairy industry, and we end up in 2007 with the largest dairy facilities in the world.”
Due to China’s largely pastoral topography, DuBois said, there is evidence of milking and production of dairy foods from as early as the 12th century. But it was not until the early 1900s when Western breeds arrived by land and sea that the formation of an organized dairy industry truly began.
DuBois said that at the time they arrived, these Western breeds, such as the iconic black-and-white Holstein cow were about four times as productive as Chinese native Yellow Cows. The subsequent increase in milk production efficiency led to an increase in investment from local businessmen.
Over the tumultuous period in Chinese history — from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s to present day — investment and development continued to grow, causing a decrease in commercial milk prices and wider accessibility of the commodity to the public, DuBois said.
Milk was often consumed in the form of two traditional dishes, “Lao” and “Su,” meaning yogurt and milk pastry, respectively. Both are popular Chinese street foods that have been around for hundreds of years, DuBois said. But contrary to conventional belief, the Chinese people love their cold glass of milk as much as Americans do.
“If you go to any grocery store in any small town in China now, 10 to 15 percent of floor space is going to be milk, milk powder, milk candy, ice cream.” DuBois said. “There are a million different ways to enjoy milk in China.”
One audience member asked about the Chinese people’s physiological predisposition to lactose intolerance. In response, Dubois highlighted two reasons for their continued consumption.
“When you process milk, in particular by making it into yogurt, you remove some of the sugars that cause lactose intolerance. Chinese producers find other ways to reduce lactose content,” DuBois said.
Secondly, DuBois said that upon posing this question to regular Chinese citizens, he was surprised by how dismissive they were that milk was hard for them to digest.
“My conversation starter in China is, you know, ‘you’re eating ice cream, doesn’t this cause you problems?’” The typical response was, ‘No, because I just don’t eat that much,’” DuBois said.
DuBois also claimed that Chinese milk products are superior to their American counterparts, with one exception.
“This isn’t quite as good, the stuff we make here — with the exception of Cornell Dairy, which is objectively delicious.”