Food & Drink

Why There's Barely Any Cheese in East Asian Food

Chinese food
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

I hate to break this to you, reader, but cheese wontons -- though incredibly tasty -- are about as far removed from traditional Chinese cuisine as strawberry Pop-Tarts dipped in Mountain Dew.

Despite cheese's presence in nearly every cuisine in the world, East Asian food in general rarely includes cheese. It's something you don't really think about until you realize how surprising it is, especially compared to our cheese-centric, artery-clogging American diet. Think of traditional Japanese, Korean, and Chinese restaurants. There is no cheese. They are cheeseless. Sans cheese. Lacking any semblance of cheese.

This is why.

China's historical distaste for cheese

In Chinese culture, cheese consumption was historically limited to nomadic tribes living on the fringes of society who were generally viewed as outsiders or barbarians. So back then, eating cheese was associated with an unsavory lifestyle. And that connotation stuck with the food till semi-recently, when Western cuisine started infiltrating mainstream Asian culture. In much of East Asia this was the traditional way they looked at cheese, the stereotype stuck, and it worked to dissuade the country from relying on cheese as a food staple.

But there are more factors that eliminated cheese from East Asian diets beyond the risk of being socially uncouth.

Ancient Cheese
Wikimedia Commons

Livestock was too busy for dairy

Wilson Tang, who owns the storied NYC dim sum house Nom Wah, considers Chinese treatment of cows to be a main, understated force in the lack of dairy in China specifically.

"Cows were traditionally used as tools for work," he said, "and oftentimes villages would have very few animal resources at hand. So they couldn't exactly use animals they need for farming purposes to create milk for cheese."

Which makes sense. But the biggest reason Asian cultures don't regularly incorporate cheese into their cooking is probably because so many East Asians are lactose intolerant. In fact, they're drastically more likely to be lactose intolerant than Westerners. And so many East Asians are lactose intolerant because of a lack of exposure to cheese. It's a vicious cycle. But it started somewhere.

Why Western stomachs can handle cheese

Humans by design are predisposed to be lactose intolerant. The only reasons Westerners (mostly) lost this intolerance was due to centuries of eating cheese and having their bodies evolve to adapt to consuming it. Darwin!

When our ancestors moved out of the Fertile Crescent -- teeming with wildlife -- and into northern regions like Europe, there arose a need for protein that didn't come from animal meat since there were fewer animals to hunt. Out of this necessity came the need to create protein from other sources. Thus, making cheese became a viable alternative.

Conversely, on the other side of the planet, East Asians were able to sate this new need for alternative sources of protein with soy. So really, East Asian cuisine not containing much cheese is just as odd as European cuisine not containing much soy. It's simply a product of tradition and accessibility.

Cheese might have a future in the East, though

While cheese in Eastern Asia is not a traditional component of their diet, the rapidly accelerating Western culinary influences have introduced cheese to these cultures. It still remains somewhat of a foreign novelty and not really a viable component of local tastes and culture. And apparently, the kind of cheese that appeals to their tastes differs a little bit from what you'd see on an American cheese plate. Namely, they are very, very pungent.That, or highly processed cheeses thanks to an increased love for American fast-food chains.

Chalk the lack of cheese in East Asian food up to custom, reputation, and perhaps most important, soy. So, the next time you dig into some crab rangoon at your local Grand Wok or Panda Corral, know that you're biting into a fat, cheesy, Americanized lie.

A delicious lie, though. And that counts for something, right?

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He actually blames Gwyneth Paltrow for most of the world's problems. Follow him @wilfulton.