September 16, 2007
This Wasn't Going to Be About Cheese
A sweet tooth is not the easiest thing to satisfy in China. I had to work very hard in both Taiwan and Shanghai to assuage my sugar cravings. I couldn’t find any decent Chinese sweets in Mainland China; I had to content myself with buying a bag or two of Skittles or M&Ms (both of which were imported and therefore very expensive) each week. Things had been markedly better in Taiwan, though I still had to make some accommodations. I ate a lot of chocolate O’Smiles, this sandwich cookie with a truly great name; there was also this flavored powdered milk drink I thought was OK. And then there were bings, these concoctions of fruit, shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk--they were pretty lovely, especially on a very hot day. And there was passion fruit juice--I’ve never tasted anything quite like fresh passion fruit juice, which was sold in baggies with a straw dropped into them, around which a string was tied so you could dangle the bag from the handlebars of your bicycle. There were also these sticky rice things that I found revolting if they had red bean in them--they were so very vile--but quite liked if they contained a paste of sweetened black sesame. But ain’t none of it the same as a really moist chocolate chip cookie or a nice big square of fudge so rich and sweet it makes your teeth hurt.
If you’ve ever looked at the “Desserts” section of a Chinese cookbook, you might have noticed that there’s usually not much there, and what is there doesn’t quite live up to our standards of an impressive finale to a good meal: you won’t find the Asian equivalent of a dense chocolate cake or a caramel souffle. That’s because something like chocolate cake--particularly if it’s frosted and accompanied by a dollop of ice cream--is cloyingly, unappetizingly sweet to the traditional Chinese palate. When I’d been on my mission about a year, a Dairy Queen opened in Taichung, the city I was stationed in. Of course I went to the grand opening.... and then I went back the next day. At one point I ended up talking to one of the western managers, who told me that all the recipes had to be revised to accommodate Chinese tastes. Otherwise, the local population might try a hot fudge sundae once, just for novelty’s sake, but it would be so unpleasantly sweet they’d never come back, and you couldn’t turn a profit someplace like Taichung catering only to expatriates.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything genetic going on, that the Chinese have different taste buds than people with ancestors from Europe. No. I mean, I guess there might be, but I think it more likely that it’s a matter of what tastes are reinforced by the culture, what people are trained from infancy to think is delicious. As someone pointed out to me, many tastes are acquired, and historically the Chinese found it silly that westerners spend so much time acquiring a taste for things that are really bad for them--diabetes isn’t nearly the problem in China that it is in the US--or else bad for them AND thoroughly gross if you stop to think about it, i.e., the fetishized, manipulated, clotted old baby food of other species, known to us as cheese.
It’s hard to realize just how revolting cheese is in the ideology of Chinese cuisine. (And yes, Chinese cuisine does have an ideology about the proper way to eat, just as we have a food pyramid and notions about what you need to eat each day to be healthy.) In that philosophy, only babies and barbarians consume dairy products, and at least babies consume it while it’s still fresh, instead of letting it get curdled, hard, and in some cases, moldy. Worst of all, this is done with something intended only for the young of other species--it’s not like we make cheese from human milk. (Think how you’d react if someone served you cottage cheese made from the milk of cocker spaniels. That’s getting to the visceral revulsion cheese in general often arouses.) The average Chinese person is as grossed out by the sight, smell and taste of blue cheese as the average American is by something called chou dofu, which literally means “stinky tofu,” and which you could buy in Taiwan as easily as you can buy a Starbucks mocha in the US. I never tried chou dofu myself; watching one of my friends take a bite and then retch violently into the sewer at the side of the road was enough to convince me I wouldn’t like the taste any better than the smell.
I didn’t really like cheese when I was a little kid. I would eat it when it was served to me, provided it was melted (it had to be melted), but I didn’t really enjoy it and I couldn’t see why people always put it in things when most foods were just as good without it. But at some point I learned to love cheese, except for American cheese, which I won’t even go near. I also don’t care for blue cheese and the other really stinky, moldy ones. I’ve tried--I tried for the better part of two decades, in fact, to acquire a taste for those weird moldy cheeses grownups are supposed to enjoy. Starting in my teens, when I was served something with Gorgonzola or Roquefort, I’d tell myself that the reason it didn’t taste good was because I just wasn’t in the mood for a stinky moldy cheese on that particular day. But one day I realized that if I’d reached my mid thirties and didn’t really enjoy stinky, moldy cheeses, I probably wasn’t going to acquire a taste for them, ever. So now I just admit that I don’t like stinky, moldy cheese, the same way I don’t like raw tomatoes or organ meat, and I’m much happier.
I had this one boyfriend who once went off on this tirade about the inferiority of American culture. It’s not like that’s a topic I can’t get jazzed about discussing, but he had this particularly stupid way of demonstrating said inferiority. “It’s like this professor I had in college once told us,” the boyfriend said. “He said that a good gauge of a country’s maturity and its contributions to the rest of the world was the number of cheeses it had invented. And France has invented, like, five hundred or a thousand or something, and the United States has invented, like, three.”
“And then there’s China,” I replied. “It’s invented zero cheeses. The Chinese don’t even eat cheese. They just invented, oh, gun powder and paper money and toilet paper and porcelain and pasta and the printing press, like, a couple thousand years ago. But of course none of that stacks up to leaving sheep’s milk in a wooden bucket for long enough that it gets stinky, hard and moldy.”
Which pissed the boyfriend off. But he deserved it.
This wasn’t going to be about cheese, because after all, I posted something about cheese already this month. This was going to be a recipe for a peanut butter bar cookie. Oh well. This was another of those times when I got all caught up in my introduction. So I guess I’ll post the recipe tomorrow or the next day. Check back then if you want a really easy recipe for an ideal bar cookie to tote along to your next picnic.
Posted by holly at September 16, 2007 8:39 PM