The rise of cheese in China

Cheese is the new opium, and China is getting hooked. Scientists have recently concluded that cheese stimulates the reward system in the brain in a similar way that drugs do. It does not come as a surprise then that more and more people in China are looking to get a fix of this stinky pleasure.

Cheese is the opium of the mouses. Photo from Pixabay.
Cheese is the opium of the “mouses”. Photo from Pixabay.

A market with holes of an Emmentaler

Chinese history, much like the history of other East Asian countries, has been predominantly cheese-free until recently. The first appearance of cheese in China had a barely lukewarm welcome, much like tofu in the West. China got its first whiff of the stuff in its heavily processed version served by American fast food chains such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.

Getting people to try something which is basically old rotten milk turned out to be a challenge. To adapt to local tastes, companies such as German Milkana and China’s Suki started marketing light flavored cheese as well as cheese with banana, strawberry, and chocolate flavors – a decision which would probably be greeted with dismay in cheese-loving France or Italy.

Milkana’s strawberry flavored cheese. Photo from Baidu Images.

Even with milder flavors, many East Asians literally cannot stand eating it – in some communities, up to 90 percent of adults are lactose intolerant. In China, dairy products are often replaced with soy-based foods such as soy milk and tofu, which also comes in a fermented version known as stinky tofu. Stinky tofu’s legendary pungent stench is probably as attractive to Westerners as Gorgonzola is to the average Chinese person. But things are about to change.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

During the last two years, cheese, much like other Western imports, has been making its way into refrigerators across China. Many international students and tourists have been exposed to various kinds of cheese, and have accepted it along with other sins of the West such as overindulgence in wine and reality TV.

On the other hand, cheese is no longer a novelty for the younger Chinese generation. In fact, it is increasingly marketed as a good source of protein and calcium for children. Exposure to dairy products from childhood also lowers the chances of lactose sensitivity in adulthood.

Our "grate" lord, cheese-us. Photo from Pixabay.
Our “grate” lord, “Cheese-us”. Photo from Pixabay.

Foreign dairy companies have taken a missionary role of spreading the gospel of cheese among China’s chefs. In January, Dutch dairy company FrieslandCampina teamed up with New Zealand’s Fonterra to open a training kitchen in Shanghai to help Chinese chefs integrate milk, butter, and cheese into popular dishes. Fonterra, the world’s biggest dairy exporter, has been training chefs since 2015 in various cities across China.

Other companies are smelling opportunities too. According a recent report, the total retail sales of China’s cheese retail market will grow at an average annual growth rate of 12.8% in the next five years.

Sweet dreams are made of cheese

The more interesting part of China’s cheese story is the ‘cheese startups’ such as Le Fromager De Pekin and Ambrosia Dairy.

Photo from Baidu Images.
Le Fromager de Pekin. Photo from Baidu Images.

Liu Yang, founder of Le Fromager De Pekin, got his first taste of this intoxicating substance while he was studying in France. Liu liked it so much that he decided to study cheesemaking in Corsica. He then came back to Beijing determined to create his own niche in the market by offering strong flavored artisanal cheese, and patiently waited for his compatriots to change their food preferences. He was right to count on their courage – Le Fromager is now steadily increasing the number of cheese addicts in China. After all, Chinese are increasingly willing to experiment with new things which offers a great potential for other gourmand startups ready to take the cream.

(Top photo from Pixabay.)

AllTechAsia Staff

AllTechAsia is a startup media platform dedicated to providing the hottest news, data service and analysis on the tech and startup scene of Asian markets in English.

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