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Milk: A Pre- and Post-Dynastic Food

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Summer Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(2) page(s): 32 - 35

Do you know that at one point, Buddhists in China banned animal milks? Therefore, they clearly were used before they did. Was this ban successful among the Chinese who did drink it as far back as neolithic times? When, where, how, and how much milk was consumed before it was banned? How much milk and what kinds are used today?

From all we could learn, milk never was popular among the Chinese, but it never disappeared either. Most of it was consumed by the affluent and the elite, and particularly sought after by women. There was a well known, popular, believed, and beloved Chinese poem that said something like: if one drinks milk one can live to be more than a hundred. Actually, the poem says drinking milk one can live to be two hundred and forty. The poem is not talking about soy milk nor nut milks, not even about fruit nor grain milks. It speaks about animal milks, mostly cow's milk.

Long ago, people in China drank the milk of mares, goats, yaks, ewes, deer and caribou, and the milk of cows and other animals. They also used milk and milk products for cooking. The question remains: When, where, how, and by whom?

There was and still is information about milk consumption among China’s ethnic nationalities. For example, Tibetans put milk, salt, and dried milk or cheese into their tea and drink many cups of it every day. Some report they drink about forty cups of this tea every day for sustenance.

The Bai ethnic people snack on ru shan be it fried, boiled, even baked. It is a street treat or snack food made with milk and/or yogurt. They eat it every day. A picture of plain fried ru shan found in Dali is shown in the hard copy of this issue, and often found filled with meat or vegetables before they fold it. Ru shan is loved with crushed brown slab sugar sprinkled on top after frying and before consuming.

If you read the article about the Qing Dynasty in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 7, you know the emperor had a 'tea kitchen' and a separate 'tea with milk' kitchen. During Qing times, he and his entourage drank lots of tea with milk or cream. They also ate many pastries made with milk and milk products. Some of the tea was black and consumed with plain milk. This should be no surprise because rulers during the Qing Dynasty were Mongols. There also was butter in some of their bakery products and fluid milk, cream, and clotted creams in other pastries. In the early part of the Qing Dynasty warm milk was highly appreciated for health reasons. Milk was part of earlier Chinese dietaries for both men and women; it came into their dietary during interactions with various nomadic tribes.

Milk and milk products were certainly part of China's dietary during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 906 CE). Traditional medical practitioners (TCM doctors) then and since have prescribed goats milk for the kidneys, other milks for other health conditions. They still consider milk a salubrious beverage. One minister touted it mixed with rheumannia. Emperor Hsuao Tsung (712 - 756 CE) adored 'Silver Moon Cakes' made with butter. Thi was written about in this magazine in 1995 in Volume 2(3) on page 6. There are others, royal and ordinary, who touted and tasted lots of 'Jade Dew Balls' made with animal milk and Kaymak, a fermented milk beverage mixed with honey. There are many other examples of foods and beverages made with animal milk and/or animal milk products.

Milk was consumed in Chinese neolithic cultures by those who reared their dairy herds. They made Koumiss, a fermented drink most often from mare's milk. Chinese joined other Central and East Asian cultures who loved and drank many kinds of dairy drinks. What is not known is how they made them and when and how much they consumed of any one of them.

William Rubrick (circa 1253 CE) describes how to make several of these beverages. Looking back on what he wrote, experts believe lactobacilli worked on the milk sugar (the lactose) to increase its acidity. This made the milk taste more acidic and prevented it from curdling. The cream in the milk was removed leaving a thin fermented liquid; and should a few curds remain, he and others report they heat the remaining liquid to break them up leaving a delicious thick lump-free beverage. The Chinese called it 'wine milk' or ju chiu. It is difficult to follow the use of milk because over the years it has many names, lo the one mentioned most often.

Some folk, in early days, did intentionally curdle or clot their lo or milk, others just fermented it to make koumiss or kaymak. Milk was also dried, most often without the cream. Some used the left-over cream in their tea while some mixed it with sago to make milk cakes. Still others, particularly affluent folk and royal ones, mixed their milk with flour and camphor and chilled it. They were making something analogous to ice cream.

While not everyone agrees that the word lo which is also transliterated as lou or luo in ancient literature means milk, most do agree that the ancient Chinese did drink milk and they did use milk products in many ways. They mixed fruit and milk and called it kuo lo. They drank milk made from nuts, and called them mi lo. Some consumed fermented animal milk, generally called thang lo.

The book called The History of the Later Han Dynasty, circa 450 CE, speaks about drinking lo. Soon thereafter, in the Qi Min Yao Shu, circa 544 CE, they write of cow's milk or lo and describe how to milk cow herds. They also write about drying milk after removing its fat, and the recommend finishing the drying in the sun. This book also writes about dried yogurt, lu lo, and about making mare's milk as a starter for fermenting milks.

In Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, Volume VI: 5, edited by H.T. Huang, lo is translated as cheese, soured milk, yogurt, and/or fermented milk. He says these milk products may resemble buttermilk, and that milk fat is often called su, and made into butter or clarified butter. Other sources translate su as clotted cream. These and other differences are secondary to the fact that they are speaking about animal milks, speaking about drinking these milks, fermented or not, and about using products made with milk. At the end of the 1500's, in Hsiung Yuanlu Yin Chuan Fu Shih Chien, milk is ju and probably fermented; it is used as a liquid and made into one food product or another.

Today, most Chinese do not drink milk unless they live in the north or in Beijing where one can purchase it as a liquid or as yogurt. On several trips to that city, we did purchase and consume it both ways; it came in clear or in a lovely blue and white jar-like container available in several markets and street-corner stalls.

One question remains, why do so many Chinese not drink milk now? A common response is cost because dairy animals require land for grazing, that is in short supply all over China, and it does raise the cost of all cow's milks. Another is, that to separate themselves from nomadic peoples, the Chinese purposefully chose not to drink milk. Certainly, during Ming Dynasty times (1368 - 1644 CE) there are reports that many Chinese conscientiously choose not to drink any milk or eat any milk products for this reason. A third reason is that not consuming milk after a person is weaned means that Chinese can no longer can make an adequate supply of the enzyme lactase to digest milk sugar–called lactose, without abdominal distress.

Many writers say that dairy products were always alien to the Chinese; but that is not so. For example, in Ming Dynasty times, butter was a Taoist sacrificial item and an item used in cooking. Monks drank milk during Ming Dynasty times. During the Qing Dynasty, several emperors had milk for breakfast, drank their tea with milk, and they liked and consumed milk custards and dishes made with milk and/or butter.

Our conclusion and that of others is that milk came into and went out of favor in various places, such as in Suzhou, China's western border areas, etc., and at various times throughout China's history. Popular or not, reasons not always understood or expressed by historians looking back, there is no question that many Chinese at many times during their history did drink milk and eat items made with milk and milk products.

Nowadays, visit any large market, Hong Kong to Dalian, and note that canned milk is on the shelves. Visit many a southern home on a hot night and you might be served acidified milk, a drink considered cooling. Go to Yunnan and you can purchase a popular cheese known as yunnanfu, considered special and healthy. In Australia, a Chinese immigrant developed a large dairy business and exported many of his butter and milk products to China. These and hundreds of other examples show that the Chinese ate, eat, and love milk in a myriad of ways.

Milk in China has always been considered a healthy food be it milk from cows, pigs, and other animals mentioned or not. Even milk from dogs is found on many a Chinese medical menu. Thus, though milk use may be on the decline in China, keep in mind that its consumption may not stay that way.
Ginger Yam Rolls
3 Tablespoons granulated or crushed Chinese slab sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1 Tablespoon preserved ginger, diced fine
1 Tablespoon pickled ginger, diced fine
2 pounds yam, peeled, steamed until soft, and mashed
1 Tablespoon finely crushed walnuts
24 spring roll sheets
1 egg white, lightly beaten but still liquid
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup condensed milk
1. Put sugar and evaporated milk in a small pot, and bring to the boil, then remove the pot from the heat source.
2. Mix mashed yam with the walnuts and pour this sugar mixture into the yam mixture slowly incorporating it. When all is mixed in, refrigerate until cool.
3. Put two to three tablespoons of the yam mixture on one point of a spring roll sheet. Fold in the left and right edges as if making an egg roll, making each fold about two inches wide. Wet the last point just a bit to seal, flatten the roll, and set it aside, seam side down on a dry plate. Make the rest of the rolls, one by one.
4. Heat half the oil in a large fry pan, and fry half the rolls until crisp on one side, turn them over and fry until crisp on the other, then remove and drain each one on paper towels. Put the rolls on a serving platter when done and fry the rest of them and do likewise, then serve.
5. Put the condensed milk in two small monkey dishes which are also known as dessert saucers, and serve as a dipping sauce.
Fried Mixed Milks
1 cup coconut milk
1 and 1/2 cups whole cows milk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup and 2 Tablespoons cornstarch, separated
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 egg whites, beaten until stiff
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons water chestnut flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup and 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil, separated
3 Tablespoons minced fresh coriander
1. Put both milks, sugar, and the half-cup of cornstarch into a small pot. Cook stirring this on medium heat until thickened. Then refrigerate.
2. When cool, gently mix with the egg whites, pour into an ice cube tray, and allow to set in the refrigerator (not the freezer). When set, pop out the cubes and have them ready to dip in batter and deep-fry.
3. Sift the all-purpose four, two tablespoons of cornstarch, and baking powder. Add six tablespoons of cold water, and the tablespoon of vegetable oil, and mix well.
4. Heat the cup of vegetable oil in a deep pot. Then dip one-quarter of the milk cubes, one at a time, into the batter made in step 3. Drain and drop them into the hot oil, and stir them until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and put the fried cubes into a serving bowl. Continue frying until all are fried, drained and placed in the bowl.
5. Sprinkle with minced coriander, and serve.
Ru Shan
1 cup all-purpose flour, divided in two equal parts
1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon finely crushed Chinese brown slab sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup bread or high-gluten flour
1 egg
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups and 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil, separated
1. Mix half of the all-purpose flour, brown sugar, yeast, and the milk and set aside for one hour.
2. Mix the other half of the all-purpose flour, bread flour, sugar, egg yogurt, and baking powder, and let this rest for one hour, then stir it well.
3. Gently mix both batters together and set aside for half an hour.
4. Heat two tablespoons vegetable oil in a fry pan, and pour in two to three tablespoons of the batter and fry it until set, then turn it over and fry one more minute. Take pancake out putting it on a paper towel lined plate. Repeat until all pancakes are made, stacking them until the task is finished.
5. Take one pancake at a time, fold it lightly in half, then roll it up very lightly so that the folded side looks like a flower, some say it looks like a rose. Set these down gently on a serving platter not touching each other.
6. Heat the two cups of oil in a large pot and fry three or four flower-shaped rolls at a time. When they are crisp, take them out, drain on paper towels, and then put them in one layer on a platter. When all are fried, serve.
Lotus Seed Milk Custard
2 teaspoons gelatin powder
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 cup whole milk
5 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup canned or home-made lotus seed paste
8 to 24 canned lotus seeds (optional)
8 to 24 mint leaves (optional)
1. In a small pot, mix gelatin with half-cup cold water and set aside until thickened, about ten or fifteen minutes.
2. Pour both milks into this pot, add the sugar, and mix well, and then heat this mixture on low heat until hot.
3. On medium heat, add the lotus seed paste and stir for about three minutes then bring it to the boil, and just as it begins to boil, remove the pot from the heat, and allow it to cool. Stir once or twice every two or three minutes. When cool, stir once more and pour this mixture into individual rice bowls. Let them cool for another hour, put the lotus seeds and mint leaves on top; or refrigerate covering each one with plastic wrap. If so doing, just before serving decor each one with lotus seeds and mint leaves, if desired.
Bird's Nest Cups
6 Tablespoons softened butter
3 Tablespoons powdered sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon dry bird's nest
2 Tablespoons crushed white rock sugar
3 egg whites
1 cup whole milk
5 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1. Knead butter and powdered sugar until shiny, then add egg yolk and the flour and knead for three to four more minutes before covering this and refrigerating it for two hours.
2. Soak bird’s nest covered in hot water for two hours, then use tweezers to pick out any non-bird's nest pieces and discard them.
3. Add half cup boiling water and the rock sugar and simmer on low heat for fifteen minutes.
4. Remove dough from the refrigerator and press flat, then roll it and cut into four-inch rounds one-quarter-inch thick. Put these into three-inch fluted tart forms.
5. Cook egg white, granulated sugar and milk until all sugar is dissolved, then cool for half hour before pouring this into the tart shells; do so gently holding a spoon just above the dough.
6. Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for fifteen minutes, remove and cool for half an hour before putting the bird's nest on top of the baked filling. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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