“What is that you’re eating?” asked my coworker, Mai. Her hair was popped into a rough ponytail tied too high giving her head a slight pineapple appearance that may have looked silly on anyone else but, somehow, seemed to only further accentuate her demure Hmong features.
In fact, her figure was one of the great mysteries of life. During the course of the day I would watch her finish off an entire meal from McDonald’s, a few bags of chips, half a steer of beef jerky, and an extra large seafood pho that she would horrifyingly sweeten with six or seven sugar packets and made me wonder if she in fact had any sense of taste at all. All this and she would not gain an ounce. I eat a french fry knowing I’ll have to use my lunch break to take a healthy two mile walk in exchange.
Mai also ate a smorgaborg of Hmong food that she prepared herself or with her family the night before; finely minced and chili studded larb hotter than a California heat wave, pickled and roasted pig knuckles, face-scrunching bitter melon stuffed fat with pork and ginger, fermented cabbage redolent with the pungent odor of fish sauce, roasted chicken rubbed with lemongrass, soups filled with herbs and eggs.
Even better, in traditional Hmong fashion she always brought extra to work. Since most of our co-workers were unfamiliar with her food and, therefore, more often than not afraid of it I was usually the only person she was feeding. In exchange I brought her homemade pickles, jams, and breads. It was this alimentary connection that ensured we would become good friends early on.
The only thing she didn’t care for in our food exchanges was the copious amount of cheeses I brought in to snack on. Her face would wince as if she has just given herself a paper cut when she got a good smell of them. A particular run-in with a particularly ripe and oozy slab of Taleggio actually cleared her up and out of the room so fast she forgot all the files she had brought with her to my desk. When she finally reclaimed them she made a particular note how the pages now stunk like her husband’s old work shoes.
Today she looked at the offending piece of spoiled milk in my hand and gave me another paper cut wince. A particularly bad one as if she had sliced herself along the fingernail.
“It’s Piave," I said.
“It smells. How can you eat that?”
“Oh, come on. You’ve never even tried it. Plus, this has a mellow scent. It’s not a smell. It's an ah-row-MA!” I pulled out the last word like taffy in an effort to get her to really take in the cheese’s nutty, hay-like perfume in hopes she would deign to try a bit.
“I don’t like cheese,” she mewed.
“Well, there is a cheese I buy at the store that comes in a tube and –“
“STOP! No! Stop. That’s not cheese.” I said with only slightly exaggerated exasperation.
“It’s not?” she asked, her pineapple leaf spikes of hair bounced atop her head.
“No. That’s processed cheese-like product. There’s probably little dairy in there. More flour and thickeners than actual milk.”
“But I like it!” she said. She laughed as I sighed in defeat and popped the rest of the classic Italian cheese in my mouth.
We had had this cheese argument before. She explained that Hmong families simply didn’t eat cheese. Ever. She also insisted a fact that I already knew – most Asian people don’t eat cheese.
Sure, I had known this but never understood it. How could so many diverse Asian cultures that preserve, pickle, salt, and ferment everything on earth not preserve milk? It was a certain question I had been pondering for a while now. My mom and I planned to eat our way through China and Tibet come this September and October and we were looking forward to the near-volcanic chili-laden dishes of Shanghai, the kebabs hawked by street vendors in Xi’an, the mutton stews of Lhasa, and the soup dumplings in Beijing. Furthermore, I was pining for the many fermented foods we would undoubtedly sample along the way and I was determined to pick up a few jars of everything for my pantry back home.
Yet, I realized that at likely no point along the way would I eat any cheese. Sure, there was a small chance in Tibet where there was a bit more influence from the more nomadic non-Han Chinese tribes and the presence of their legendary fresh-milk yak cheeses, but it was doubtful due to the fact that the Communist Party was tightly controlling our tour and exposure to tribal cultures was going to be somewhat limited.
Mai explained to me that most Asian people are somewhat lactose intolerant. (I don't have any statistics to prove this, but a lack of cheese in Han-Chinese cuisine and only five or six Artisan cheesemakers in all of China may help back me up.) I explained that this still didn’t really make much sense since many hard cheeses have extremely little lactose at all, hence why so many people who can’t eat dairy can still have some Parmesan shaved onto their salad. But, then again, if you know your body doesn’t like it in the first place then why experiment with it at all when so few people want it?
A little more research and a bit of reading from Fuchsia Dunlop, renowned Chinese food expert, revealed to me a few other explanations. In one particular article where she chronicled an experiment where she brought over a variety of cheeses to some experienced Chinese chefs to taste she explained that many Chinese have little to no exposure to cheese in their lifetimes so few ever gain an appreciation for it. Rather, they nurture a fear of it.
Sure, some more adventurous eaters may dive in and find a taste for a few, the way some Western eaters find a love for a fish sauce and sugar slathered sour plums, but overall consumption of real cheese is relatively infrequent. (The consumption of massively processed cheese-like products, however, is not.)
Furthermore, there’s a historical stigma attached to cheese. Non-Han Chinese generally regarded milk foods as a uncouth aspect of the nomadic tribes in China. Dairy was uncivilized.
However, go west and you will indeed find some types of Chinese cheeses. Due to the influence of nomadic tribes the western regions of China like Tibet and Xinjiang have vastly different cultures and cuisines that westerners may not necessarily associate with what we see as traditional China. Foods encompass things like goat, yogurt, bananas, and barley. Hardly the stuff of a chili spiked hot pots or ginger steamed fish. Furthermore, as Western China shares borders with countries like Mongolia, India, Nepal, and Pakistan some crossover is bound to carry over. Hence, Chinese cheeses and a slew of other dishes such as Chinese-style curries.
In fact, one of my goals when I get to Lhasa is to try and get my hands on some chura loenpa, a fresh yak cheese similar to cottage cheese. But, like I’ve said, we’ll see how much time I’m allowed to be on my own in Tibet.
Yet, all that aside, I still can’t get Mai to try a tiny crumb of Piave. She complains that the taste is too oily, and that the flavor lingers too long in the mouth like a guest who doesn’t realize it’s time to leave.
Fine enough. I’ve turned down her fermented chilies drowning in dark soy sauce, fish sauce, and raw sugar. She insists it’s a revelation in flavor. Upon trying it I assure you it tastes like the bile from an overeager fire eater, though I have yet to go to the circus and confirm this with one.
Still, I have swayed Mai to eat cooked cheese. When the flavor are tempered and the fats are warmed it’s nearly impossible to resist really good cheese. Especially, an amazing macaroni and cheese dish.
This particular one uses a buttery young Mahon cheese, a Spanish classic. It's tossed with some peak-of-summer cherry tomatoes and zucchini to freshen it up and give it some zing. A quick drizzle of chili oil finishes it off and gives it a proper kick to cut through the béchamel sauce.
The result for Mai? Well, we still have to see. I think this dish has a great chance to sway her to the curdled path. However, if you have any other perfect cheese recipes that can persuade anyone please leave them in the comments section.
Mahon Mac & Cheese with Zucchini and Chili Oil
10 ounces penne
10 ounces young Mahon
1 cup of cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 small zucchini, sliced thinly
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
salt and pepper
1. Grate the cheese and set aside. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a large casserole dish and set aside.
2. Cook the pasta in some salted boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta through a colander.
3. To prepare the béchamel place the butter in a medium sauce pan and melt over high heat on a stove top. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon for about thirty seconds until the flour just begins to take color and smell nutty. Add the milk. Decrease the heat to medium-high and stir until the sauce thickens. Add most of the Mahon (reserving a handful or so for topping) and the salt and pepper to taste and stir together until the cheese is melted.
4. Toss the pasta, zucchini, and tomatoes together in the casserole dish. Pour the béchamel over the pasta mixture. Top with the leftover Mahon and a few extra slices of zucchini. Sprinkle on the last of the Mahon cheese.
5. Bake for 25 minutes. Allow the dish to cool for five minutes before serving. Drizzle the top with a bit of chili oil and serve.