Chinese cuisine is not known for its use of dairy, but there are a few groups that have been making cheese in the country for centuries.
One of these cheeses is rushan, made by the Bai people who live in the Yunnan province, in South Western China. The Bai people hold the colour white in high regard (choosing it for their clothing, decorations, houses, etc.) and have a culture of curing and preserving food, which leads us to cheese.
"Even though there’s sugar, it’s not overly sweet because the cheese is kind of sour. It has a toasty, but also sweet and sour taste."
Rushan, which is also called “milk fan” because of its shape, is made from cow’s milk. “It’s a lot like mozzarella or even burrata, but instead of eating it fresh, it’s stretched and dried, and the dry cheese is deep fried and scattered with sugar,” tells Adam Liaw to SBS Food.
Liaw had heard of rushan before, but never tried it until he went to Yunnan to film an upcoming episode of Destination Flavour China. There, he learned how to make the cheese with a member of the Bai minority.
“It’s made from a mixture of fresh milk and fermented milk. The cultured fermented milk is mixed with fresh milk and heated until it forms a curd and then the curd is kneaded in its whey,” he explains. “It happens very quickly, it only takes a few seconds of mixing the two milk together. Then the curd gets stretched across long bamboo poles and hang in the sun to dry.”
After being dried, it’s often fried, which gives it a light and crispy texture. “Even though there’s sugar, it’s not overly sweet because the cheese is kind of sour. It has a toasty, but also sweet and sour taste,” says Liaw. It can also be sliced and added to stir-fries.
Fried cheese is hard to beat, but a cheese lollipop sounds pretty exciting too. Rushan is sometimes rolled around a stick and grilled, then covered in rose jam.
“It’s slightly chewy, very flavourful, like a caramelised cheese stick, a chewy cheese pancake. With the rose jam, it’s very delicious.”
Chef Simone Tong from New York’s Little Tong Noodle Shop has also travelled to the Dali area of Yunnan and made rushan. “A lot of people in the village make their own rushan, they carry it in a basket and sell it on the street,” she tells SBS Food.
She ate it grilled, with rose jam. “It’s slightly chewy, very flavourful, like a caramelised cheese stick, a chewy cheese pancake. With the rose jam, it’s very delicious,” she says.
While rushan is a beloved street food snack, it’s also an important part of celebrations. “Rushan is one of the key ingredients in the three-course tea ceremony of the Bai people, which emphasises three flavours with each course — bitter, sweet and meaningful aftertaste. The second course adds rushan, brown sugar and cinnamon to create a sweet tea that symbolises the satisfaction in life,” writes the Shanghai Daily
If you want to try rushan, your best bet is to visit the Dali area of Yunnan, where most Bai people live. But the cheese can also be found in the rest of the province and some Yunnanese restaurants across the country.
Outside of China, rushan is harder to find. In New York, Little Tong Noodle Shop uses a similar cheese in their JB Melt sandwich.
“You could also make it at home,” says Tong. “It’s basically like making mozzarella, but instead of making it into a ball, you stretch it thin and dehydrate it.”
If you decide to go on a cheese discovery trip to Yunnan, make sure to also try the other cheese made by the Bai people. Ru bing, also known as “milk cake”, is traditionally made with goat’s milk. Unlike rushan, it’s not dried but pressed into a tofu-like block. It’s usually eaten with sugar, salt or spices, either fresh or sliced and deep-fried.
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These clever, crunchy spring rolls are filled with a mixture of beef, mustard, mozzarella and onion, which means you get the convenience of a finger food and the flavours of a cheeseburger.
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