The Beijing Dairy Lexicon
Something horrible has happened.
Whenever I eat or drink extremely creamy dairy products (whole milk, ice cream, cheese, etc.), my throat closes up and I have to clear it incessantly. When I have more than a serving of any of these, I feel sick and usually get a stomachache. It definitely isn’t lactose-intolerance, or even an allergy… all I know is that yes, it’s sad, but as long as yogurt remains in my life, I don’t mind if I don’t need to eat much cheese. I thank the dairy gods that my throat has no reaction to probiotics.
When I tell people I don’t react well to too much dairy they nod knowingly and say, “Oh, that makes sense… You’re Asian.”
Actually, this statement is off by quite a bit. It’s certainly true that the introduction of milk to countries like Japan was due to Western influence, but what about Northern Asia? Northeastern China is close enough to Central Asian regions like Mongolia and Tibet that fermented dairy products are old news.
Suan nai (or “sour milk”), as yogurt is called, is never used in Chinese cooking (that would be disgusting), but it’s still everywhere: yogurt ads seem to make up 30% of commercials, and you can’t walk twenty feet without passing a street stand selling the ubiquitous Old Beijing honey yogurt.
This yogurt, in my opinion, is worth living for. Although these yogurts, served in gray ceramic jars with a paper collar instead of a lid, are what first come to mind when a Beijing hears the word “yogurt,” they’re different from what you find in stores. Plain supermarket yogurt is sweetened with sugar, not honey (NEVER buy anything that says “no sugar” because it’ll be loaded with artificial sweeteners). Flavored versions range from tradition (walnut, jujube or Chinese medicine) to gag-worthy (kiwi). Yogurt, similarly to in the U.S., is all the rage because it’s so good for you. Chinese yogurt commercials have ours beat, though: they usually involve a group of girls with eerily pale skin and iridescent hair jumping on a bed and caressing their perfect abs as they sip yogurt.
Yes, I said “sip,” not “eat.” In China, yogurt is a drink with a consistency somewhere between kefir and European yogurt. The amount of aded sugar is nowhere near as much (twenty-one grams, people!), so the yogurt is tangy without being too sour. Of course, for the real Beijing experience, you have to get the honey yogurt in the street. You can buy the jars to take home if you leave a deposit and return them later, but if you want to do as the locals do, drink it there. The vendor will hand you an icy earthenware jar, followed by a thin plastic straw, which you then use to puncture the paper collar (blue and white, with a smiling cow’s face on it). You then stand in front of the stand and slurp through the straw, trying your best not to look awkward. When the last bit is gone, you discard your jar into the used pile. Believe me, this stuff gives you an energy jolt for three yuan (less than fifty cents).
I tried to become a connoisseur of Beijing dairy this summer. Working in Timezone 8, there was a local milk/yogurt company that delivered daily. (My coworkers could drink two bottles of milk and a yogurt each– still think Asians are lactose-intolerant?) After a hiking trip, all I saw were yogurt houses serving freshly made cups of it. Xinjiang restaurants make their own as well, served with pieces of dried fruit.
Maybe the most interesting experience I had with dairy was when I saw mobs of people lining up in front of a storefront that said “nai lao,” or “cheese.” Whatever they were selling, it definitely wasn’t cheese. Upon asking, I found out that it was a kind of Manchurian milk product dating from the Qing dynasty court. It seemed only slightly fermented, with a lighter consistency and sweeter taste than yogurt (My camera ate the picture, so here’s one from Google images).
I also tried Tibetan Yak’s milk yogurt. Given my love for goat’s milk yogurt, I thought this might be the next best thing. I took a bite (this stuff was thicker), thought, this is so creamy and delicious, then stopped. Weird yak aftertaste– I couldn’t finish it.
After sampling all these yogurts, I think I have a basis to judge on: in this case, mainstream is better. Nothing will trump Old Beijing honey yogurt. I even brought back an empty jar to the States so I can fill it with diluted yogurt, sip through a straw, and pretend I’m standing on that street corner.