Tag Archives: Food and Drink

Making Mr. Song’s Cheeses

By Miranda Brown

The subject of this post may strike readers as odd. The combination of “Chinese” and “cheese” brings little to mind: neither memorable textures, nor fragrant flavors. Nothing, not even a single name like Parmesan or cheddar. The reason for the dearth of associations is obvious enough. Cheese is largely absent from the Chinese diet, nowadays found only in the periphery of the Chinese world, in places like Yunnan and Mongolia, where it is regarded as ethnic food for Tibetans and other minorities.

Yet things were different several hundred years ago. Chinese gastronomes once waxed poetic about the taste and texture of cheese, professing their preference for it over elaborate delicacies. One poet, living in the thirteenth century, extolled the flavor of cheese, saying, “No need for fancy morsels when there is cheese!”[1] Another, living a century later, asserted the superiority of dairy to bean curd. “While this old fellow is content with his tofu,” he wrote, “The delight gotten from cheese is double.”[2]  These early foodies related recipes for manufacturing fresh, non-melting cheeses like paneer and the secrets for creating stretched curds like mozzarella.

Over the last several years, I have experimented with recipes for Chinese cheese, attempting to recapture the flavors and textures of centuries past. One recipe, for stretched-curd “milk threads,” proved tricky. Preserved in a 16thc-cookbook, Song’s Instructions for Preserving Life (Songshi yangsheng bu 宋氏養生部), the recipe can be summarized like this:

  1. Heat cow’s milk until hot.
  2. Pour in a souring agent (akin to diluted vinegar), dripping it into the milk gradually.
  3. Once a curd forms, collect it with a cotton wrap and shape into a disc.
  4. Take the curd and place inside of a pot of scalding water.
  5. In a separate vessel of scalding water, press it into the shape of a thin sheet of coarse silk.
  6. Place the curd onto a stick, rolling and pulling.
  7. Put the curd inside the scalding water in the pot, rolling and pulling three to five more times while in the water.
  8. Roll out the resulting thread, placing it on a rack to dry in the sun (oil can be added to make the product smoother).[3]

This recipe assumes a working knowledge of the cheesemaking process. Hence, the omission of precise measurements. Readers must know beforehand the quantities of milk or souring agent, and the temperature of the milk or scalding water. Needless to say, this presents a challenge to a modern cook who is unfamiliar with cheesemaking.

My first attempts to produce the cheese failed, even with un-homogenized milk. The resulting curds, small and grainy, refused to stretch after being immersed in hot water. I sought help from Youtube, watching videos of Indian housewives making kalari, a non-rennet string cheese that was similar to Song’s stretched curd in terms of ingredients (cow’s milk, vinegar, hot water). I noticed that when coagulating the milk, the home cooks would test the temperature of the milk with their fingers, stopping the heating process once they could no longer keep their fingers in the liquid, rather than waiting for the milk to come to a soft boil as one would when making ricotta or paneer. This made me think that control of temperature was key to success, something hinted by Song’s own directions: heat the milk until hot, not boiling. Still, my subsequent efforts to make the cheese failed despite the care taken during the initial curdling process. I wondered if the pasteurization process, which requires that the milk be heated to at least 165° Fahrenheit, had something to do with my lack of success.

My breakthrough came during a trip to California, where I was able to purchase raw or unpasteurized milk. I heated a quart of the raw milk gently until hot (110° F), then poured in a little diluted vinegar and shut off the heat, all the while continuously stirring the milk. Within minutes, the milk transformed into one large curd.

Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar . Image courtesy of the author.

I removed the curd and heated a pot of water to simmering, and immersed the curd into the scalding water for a few moments, removing it from the pot and kneading, repeating the process three times. Voilà, an elastic curd that stretched easily.

Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.

Looking back at the experience with Chinese cheesemaking, I can say that the success of my experiment depended on a variety of factors: knowledge of arcane texts, watching other cheesemakers at work, and many failed experiments in the kitchen.

Miranda Brown teaches the history of Chinese science and food in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. Fascinated with recipes of all kinds, she is the author of the Art of Medicine in Early China (2015) and with Yang Yong, “The Wuwei Medical Manuscripts” (2017). She is currently writing a book about the premodern history of dairy in China.


[1] Zhu Xi  朱熹, Zhuzi wenji 朱子文集 (Taipei: Defu wenjiao jijinhui, 2000), 3/110.

[2] Yang, Lian 楊鐮 (chief editor), Quan Yuan shi 全元詩 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2013), 109.

[3] For a translation of the whole recipe, see Miranda Brown, “Mr. Song’s Cheeses, South China, 1368-1644.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies (Forthcoming). 

Thomas Gage’s Chocolate Recipe and Regimen of 1655

By R.A. Kashanipour

In A New Survey of the West-Indies of 1655, the English friar Thomas Gage celebrated the ubiquitous consumption and qualities of chocolate throughout the early modern Spanish Atlantic World, particularly in New Spain. “Chocolate,” wrote the Dominican priest, was consumed in “all the West-India’s, but also in Spain, Italy, and Flanders, with approbation of many learned Doctors in Physick.”  He lavishly described chocolate as “unctuous, warm [with] moist parts mingled with the earthly” all the while defining it as “one of the necessariest commodities in the Indias.” Gage noted that seemingly everyone in seventeenth-century Mexico and Guatemala imbibed in the frothy and sweetened beverage. According to the friar, Indians produced it, women demanded it, Spaniards celebrated it, and doctors healed with it. [1]

Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (1655). Courtesy of the Kislak Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (1655). Courtesy of the Kislak Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

 

Arriving to Mexico in the port of Veracruz in 1625, Gage reported that his first meal among his Dominican brothers was a lavish affair in which “no fowls were spared, many capons, turkey cocks, and hens were prodigally lavished.” The entire party was entertained “lovingly with some sweetmeats, and everyone with a cup of the Indian drink called chocolate.” In the Maya highlands of Chiapas, two cloisters of Dominican nuns, “talked about far and near,” were renowned not for their spirituality and devotion, but rather for their skill in making chocolate. The consumption of beverage was so commonplace that the bishop of Guatemala threatened to excommunicate women that consumed chocolate during Mass, presumably in lieu of the Eucharist. [2]

Thomas Gage, "Chapter XVI - Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions," A New Survey of the West-Indias, (1655), 106.
Thomas Gage, “Chapter XVI – Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions,” A New Survey of the West-Indias, (1655), 106.

 

Gage detailed a recipe for the Mesoamerican “chocolatical confection” that was a rich mixture of indigenous and European herbs and spices.[3]

Put into it black pepper which is not well approved of by the physicians because it is so hot and dry, but only for one who hath a cold liver, but commonly instead of this pepper, they put into it a long red pepper called chile which, though it be hot in the mouth, yet is cool and moist in operation. It is further compounded with white Sugar, Cinnamon, Clove, Anise seed, Almonds, Hazelnuts, Orejuela [anona], Vanilla, Sapoyall [mamey], Orange flower water, some Muske, and as much of these may be applied to such a quanitie of Cacao, the several dispositions of Achiotte, as it will make it look the colour of a red brick.[4]

To prepare properly, he noted that the ingredients must be dried and ground with an Indian metate. The cinnamon and chiles were to be first beaten with warm water and powdered cacao. Subsequently the anise and other herbs and spices were to be individually added to the confection before being “searced” or sifted to remove the shells and hulls. Finally, powdered achiote was to be added to enrich the beverage with a hearty color and earthen flavor.[5]

Far from a mere observer, the friar admonished the regular and remedial qualities of a fine cup of chocolate. “For myself,” he wrote, “I must say that used it twelve years constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock, another within an hour or after dinner, and another between four or five in the afternoon.” When he needed to study late into the night, he “would take another cup about or seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking till about midnight.” This four to five cup-a-day, twelve-year regimen of chocolate kept him “healthy, without any obstructions or oppilations, not knowing either ague or fever.” However, if on occasion, he neglected his regular routine, he found himself weak and infirmed with a “stomach fainty.”  He was, in other words, completely habituated to the consumption of chocolate.[6]

[1] Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (London: E. Cotes, 1655), 106, 110.
[2] Gage, 23.
[3] Gage, 107.
[4] Gage, 108.
[5] Gage, 108.
[6] Gage, 109.

Additional Resources:

Sophie Coe and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

Martha Few, “Chocolate, Sex, and Disorderly Women in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 52:4 (2005), 673-687.

Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).