Dairy in Asian Cuisine?
December 17, 2009 12:23 AM   Subscribe

Why do dairy products have a limited geographic range in Asian cuisine?

I've noticed a trend in my (admittedly limited) experience of Asian food: dairy products seem to be rarely featured, if not totally absent, in the cuisines of China, Japan, and some of Southeast Asia. Yet, just over the Himalayas, Indian cuisine has ghee and paneer, and the Mongolians have kumis. This also seems to be correlated with geographic distributions of lactose intolerance, with China, Japan and Southeast Asia having the highest rates in the world.

My initial guess was that, historically, geography prevented cultures with dairy-heavy cuisines from intermingling with dairy-free cultures - either the Himalayas or the Gobi Desert may have limited the movement of cattle into mainland China. But China seems to have plenty of opportunities to intermingle with other cultures, be it the Silk Road, the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty or even later trading with the Portuguese or Dutch. Why would the use of dairy products - which, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, greatly increases the amount of calories extracted from livestock - not be adopted by these cultures?
posted by Yiggs to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Does the lactose-intolerance issue not mostly answer this question? I imagine if a large proportion of the population of an area can't digest milk, it won't become part of their cuisine even if they're exposed to its use.
posted by MadamM at 12:29 AM on December 17, 2009

This has changed somewhat in recent years. Many Chinese supermarkets have solid half-aisles dedicated to yogurt.
posted by Serf at 12:31 AM on December 17, 2009

Why would the use of dairy products - which, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, greatly increases the amount of calories extracted from livestock - not be adopted by these cultures?

For a culture to develop lactose tolerance, they'd have to go through a pretty unpleasant adaptive period during which a lot of people were sick a lot of the time. Cultures that did develop it likely had little choice in the matter- they needed the calories, so they put up with the discomfort. But if you had enough food around that DIDN'T make you ill, why bother with milk?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:34 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Liz, I think you have it backwards. Adult lactose intolerance was the human norm, way back there somewhere.

Specific groups of humans who came to rely heavily on herding evolved to not be lactose intolerant. Groups which didn't do that retained the original lactose intolerance.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:47 AM on December 17, 2009

No, that's what I said- they had to develop tolerance.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:02 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Five minutes ago, I was in a 7-11 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There's an entire case devoted to Thai branded yogurt, but it's my understanding that many lactose intolerant people can handle yogurt because the lactose is mostly eaten up by the yogurt beasties. Or maybe the yogurt is actually non-dairy. I'll have to check the ingredients next time I'm in the store.

For what it's worth, Wikipedia has an interesting map of global lactose intolerance. The author(s) of the Wikipedia article seem to think that the default is lactose intolerance; the ability to digest dairy is due to a genetic mutation that occurred only in some parts of the world.
posted by PatoPata at 1:19 AM on December 17, 2009

So is the idea that China and Japan had a more reliable agricultural source of calories than other cultures and never needed to utilize dairy calories, and so never overcame the innate human lactose intolerance? If so, why was this the case? Were other cultures put through periods of famine in which they were forced to overcome their lactose intolerance? How did Eastern Asia avoid this problem throughout history? Is it related at all to their approach to agriculture... that is, carefully monitored rice paddies vs. European-style farming?
posted by Yiggs at 1:23 AM on December 17, 2009

Why would the use of dairy products - which, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, greatly increases the amount of calories extracted from livestock - not be adopted by these cultures?
I don't think cattle ever featured prominently as a livestock animal in the dense populated farming areas that are the heartlands of Han culture (sort of going off dim recall of Pomeranz's comparisons of the Yangtze delta and England, plus some other micro-histories, though I bet it applied to Henan etc too). People kept buffalo for pulling the plough but they were bred with that in mind rather than milk yield. I think basically there wasn't the pasture land and with an existing cuisine that had things like soy milk possibly no big enough draw to make rearing dairy cattle appealing. As noted above, that's changing now and companies like Mengniu are marketing milk and other dairy products heavily.
posted by Abiezer at 1:25 AM on December 17, 2009

Ah, PatoPata, so you're saying that only people who inherited this specific mutation would have the ability to digest the lactose... that seems to make sense in that genetically isolated cultures seem to have higher lactose intolerance rates. I can easily see how that would shape a culture's cuisine choices too.
posted by Yiggs at 1:27 AM on December 17, 2009

An interesting change to note though is that several months ago we had a butter shortage crisis in Japan - and the reason was because the usual milk stock was being bought by China trying to cope with an increase in milk consumption.
posted by gomichild at 2:38 AM on December 17, 2009

Evolution is pretty non-linear. Just because an adaptation is superior is not enough to make it ubiquitous. Pretty much any genetic variation that does not totally rule out successful reproduction will tend to stick around in the population. Including lactose intolerance, predisposition to mental illness, red hair, diabetes, heart disease, homosexuality, blue eyes, etc. etc. This kind of diversity is actually very important for the health of any species, because the genes that help determine various traits, undesirable, desirable, and indifferent, are all mixed up with one another.
posted by idiopath at 5:26 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out this paper (PDF), it covers the history of dairy consumption in Japan in great detail. Before WWII, rice accounted for 60% of the caloric intake of Japanese people, and their diets focused on rice, fish, and vegetables. Your question seems to assume that the Japanese would be choosing a less efficient path by avoiding dairy, but I would argue the opposite: it's much more efficient to cultivate and consume rice and fish than livestock and milk, and the introduction of the latter is a result of western influence despite the inefficiencies.
posted by * at 5:34 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

A fascinating article appeared last year in American Anthropologist on the growing status and changing meanings of milk consumption in contemporary China, in accordance with other consumer objects. In China now, according to the anthropologist Andrea Wiley, milk is being associated with child growth, as it had been for decades in the U.S. At the same time, the meaning of milk consumption is changing in here. The article is not free if you're not associated with a university but here is the abstract.
Large-scale milk production and consumption historically have been localized to Europe and countries with large European-derived populations. However, global patterns have now shifted, with dramatic increases in milk consumption in Asian countries and flat or declining consumption in European and European-derived countries. Efforts to market it around the world emphasize milk's positive effects on child growth, and, by extension, the individual and national benefits that derive from that growth. At the same time, milk has newly emerged in milk promotions in the United States as food that facilitates weight loss. Milk has been able to achieve a global presence and continuing relevance in populations in which its consumption has been declining by continually transforming and repositioning itself as a "special" food with properties able to alleviate the health concerns seen as most salient at the time.
posted by keener_sounds at 5:36 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

This question based on assumptions which I infer come from North American or European Asian restaurants, milk is fairly commonplace in northern China and is served warm alongside meals at many restaurants, it is also a fairly common drink for children. I have less experience in Japan, but I have also seen it on shelves there as well. Dairy is generally not a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine mainly because for the most part the cow is generally considered to be more of a machine than a source of food and they were incredibly expensive over there, meat wise it is much more of a pig and to a less extent a chicken/duck culture.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:48 AM on December 17, 2009

I remember reading once that since the introduction of milk in Vietnam the height of the average Vietnamese had increased greatly. However, I suspect it might have had to do with better nutrition for the populace in general than just milk consumption.
posted by Modus Pwnens at 7:15 AM on December 17, 2009

In Singapore, the milk has sugar in it. Just thought I'd throw that out there.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:22 AM on December 17, 2009

I lived in France when I was a little kid in the 1950s and went to neighborhood schools. Once a week they would bring us little glass bottles of sweetened milk, a public health effort to get kids to drink milk, something they apparently did not do at home.

My sister and I got hot lunch at school; we were all expected to bring our own beverage or drink tap water. We brought milk or juice in a thermos like the good American kids we were. Our French classmates, who ranged in age from 5 to 11, all brought red wine which they diluted 50/50 with tap water.
posted by mareli at 8:32 AM on December 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

Lots of interesting stuff here - thanks everyone!

To clarify my question a bit: based on my (broad, North American) point of view it seems like the traditional meals of Eastern Asia rarely feature dairy products. While I'm sure this assumption is far too general to cover all of the cuisine of these countries, it does seem to have some validity when you look at the global rates of lactose intolerance - on average, China, Japan and Southeast Asia seem to have very high percentages. According to the map linked by PatoPata it seems the rates are also high for many historically isolated (from Europe) cultures - Native Americans and Aborigines have particularly high rates, for example.

So my thinking now is not that dairy farming is necessarily more efficient than any other kind of agriculture, but that the ability to digest lactose developed early on somewhere in Europe, the Middle East and/or India and was gradually spread around those areas in contact with one another. From this ability to eat dairy products came traditional cuisines that featured dairy products. For whatever reason this mutation did not occur in Eastern Asia, the Americas, or Southern Africa - or, if it did, the culture lacked the history of dairy, so even if someone was born with the ability to eat dairy he would never get a chance to. In these cultures livestock would be viewed very differently - using the cow more as a machine than a milk source, as BobbyDigital pointed out.

Obviously this is a lot of idle conjecture and I don't have any sources to back me up, but it's a narrative that makes sense based on what people have said.

A very interesting twist is the recent introduction of dairy into these cultures, as a lot of people have pointed out. If the ability to digest lactose is genetically determined I wonder how long it will take lactose intolerance rates in those countries to even out with the West.
posted by Yiggs at 8:59 AM on December 17, 2009

i don't know how readily available milk is in asia in general. i remember as a young child in taiwan that milk was usually only in powder form and rarely ingested. my coworkers in japan found it really weird that in the american portion of my childhood, i drank a lot of fresh milk (was lactose tolerant as a kid, but am now lactose intolerant- though it bears mentioning that i spent chunks of developmental time in various asian countries where we didn't really have milk- it was too expensive to just guzzle down the way we do in america). i never put too much thought into it, just thought it was yet another cultural thing.
posted by raw sugar at 10:30 AM on December 17, 2009

I don't know about China, but until the mid-19th century and "European contact", eating animal products was considered "unclean" - it was a cultural thing, and people who killed animals (livestock, but not fish) were segregated into an "unmentionable" caste, and this included people who worked with leather. To this day, privately-owned shoe shops are likely operated by descendants of this untouchable caste.

Still, people in Japan rarely ate meat such as pork and beef. Leather was rarely used - lacquer, bamboo, woven reeds, silk, cotton, hemp and mulberry took its place.

While it's often said that Japan has relatively small amounts of arable land, before the mid-19th century there was more than enough arable land to build a vibrant national state, and the chosen form of wealth was rice, rather than cattle.

Most of the available arable land was devoted to wet-rice agriculture. Rice is calorie-rich, easily transported and easily stored, and is easy to count and keep track of.

Compared to India, Japan also has a uniform climate, and is cut off from the rest of the Continent. I don't know if there were any native bovine creatures in Japan in paleolithic times that could have been domesticated (like there were in India), but until after WWII Japanese agriculture did depend on bullocks for plowing and transport.

Japan receives quite a bit of rain - it's a monsoon culture - which probably rules out growing cereals and grains, as drier Continental (Chinese) cultures do. If you grow rice, there isn't a lot of room to raise cattle, which need quite a lot of area to graze.

There are more efficient ways to get protein and calcium than to drink milk. Seaweed is high in calcium, and tofu beans are high in protein, for example.

Korea, on the other hand, is pretty famous for its BBQ and meat dishes, even though like Japan it is a Buddhist country. It should be said, though, that until about 20 or 30 years ago, the average Korean ate very very little meat - they could not afford it.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:00 AM on December 17, 2009

I just want to clarify a lot of misconceptions about lactose intolerance I found in this thread.
All human have ability to digest lactose at some point of their life, even the lactose intolerance individuals! For example, human breast milk contain 6.8% lactose while cow milk contains 4.9% . It is norm for most adults to lost the ability to digest as they get older. Because from evolutionary perspective, it is very unusual for adult mammal to continue to drink milk. So it is extremely energetically wasteful to continue to produce lactose digesting enzyme in adulthood. So called "lactose intolerant" are actually the norm. What's unusual biologically are presence of "lactose tolerant" individuals! This lactose tolerant mutation arise independently in both Northern Europe and East Africa.

Also, just because a person is lactose intolerant doesn't mean she/he can't enjoy dairy products. For example, I am lactose-intolerant but I could still enjoy eating cheese, yogurt and butter. In case of cheese and yogurt the lactose was already converted to lactic acid by the bacteria, while butter is just pure fat.

Let's move on to the main question.
Harold McGee also addressed this issue in his book. He said " The one major region of the Old Word not to embrace dairying was China, perhaps because Chinese agriculture began where the natural vegetation runs to often toxic relatives of wordwood and epazote rather than ruminant-friendly grasses. Even so, frequenct contact with central Asian nomads introduced a variety of dairy products to China, whose elite long enjoyed yogurt, koumiss, butter, acid-set curds, and around 1300 and thanks to the Mongols, even milk in their tea!" So Chinese do eat dairy products. But I'm not entirely convinced by his toxic grasses argument. He also said " ...dairying took hold on land that supported abundant pasturage but was less suited to cultivation of wheats and other grains. " I don't know anything about Japan, Korea or SE Asia but I think this is the major reason why China doesn't embrace dairy products; there just not enough pasture land! Any available arable land was already converted to farming, there just not enough pasture land left for cattle.
posted by Carius at 7:07 PM on December 17, 2009

Excellent Carius - thank you!
posted by Yiggs at 11:00 AM on December 18, 2009

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