"There was no tradition [of drinking milk] in China. Before 1980, milk was only for [the] old and babies ... . From 1980 to 2000, milkmen delivered fresh milk ... . [Nowadays,] milk in a paper box or a plastic bag [is] much more convenient than getting up early in the morning to fetch fresh milk." —Wangjian, who grew up in Chengdu in the 1950s
While dairy products are not traditionally used in Chinese cuisine, within the last two decades, they have become a regular part of many people's diets nationwide. The popularity of milk, in particular, is evident in the large selection of flavored milks widely available and more currently by the billboards of national hero Liu Xiang poised with a small box of Yi Li milk pasted on supermarket walls and bus stops everywhere. Xiang became a celebrity after his record-tying, gold medal performance in the 110-meter hurdle race at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Since then his career has been followed closely, and expectations are high for his Beijing performance. Yi Li, one of China's six largest dairy producers, is the official dairy sponsor for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and paid Liu Xiang a reported RMB10 million for his part in the advertising campaign.
Today's urban youth don't remember a time when milk wasn't stocked at every corner shop, but the "'80s children"—the first generation born since the enactment of the open-door policy, do. Zigong native Chris Yang, 24, was, as far back as she can remember, forced to drink a bowl of warm milk each morning. Yang, who grew up in a middle-class family, recalls that her parents—who didn't drink the milk themselves—as well as most of her neighbors would order a daily delivery of fresh milk from the local farm. Since she disliked taste of milk, Yang was delighted when packaged milk became popular because she could take her milk to go and toss it out on the way to school.
In 2006, the China Dairy Industry Association, along with various educational ministries and media outlets, launched a plan to supply 19 million students in 500 schools in impoverished areas across the country with daily milk, provided by Meng Niu, another of China's top six dairies. According to the China Food Business Web, as of the end of 2007, the program had further expanded, reaching a total of 1,000 schools in major Chinese cities.
While milk and yogurt have gained acceptance, other dairy products remain less popular. A 2003 U.S. National Dairy Council survey found that China consumes150 grams of cheese per person per year compared with 14 kg per person per year in the U.S. and 24 kg per person per year in France. Sichuan University graduate student Joy Tan explained that while she and her peers regularly enjoy yogurt and cheese, her parents dislike such foods—but they do drink milk.
In addition to governmental and corporate backing of the dairy industry, increasing access to refrigeration, an influx of hypermarkets, importation of cattle for breeding, higher incomes, and Ultra High Temperature (UHT) packaging, which enables milk to be stored unrefrigerated for more than six months, have all allowed for this growth. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, between 2002 and 2005, China's milk consumption nearly doubled.
China is now the third-largest dairy producer in the world behind the United States and India. Additional fresh milk is supplied by neighboring countries, notably Australia and Japan, but other dairy products such as butter and milk powder can travel much farther, making China's demand for dairy a trend that businesses worldwide are paying attention to. The UK has seen increases in dairy prices this past year and points to weather-related low production as well as sharply increased demand in China as primary causes.
Plain milk is widely available in UHT packages or refrigerated, ranging from low to whole-fat and marketed as "calcium-enriched," "women's," "breakfast," or "nighttime" milk. Perhaps the more adventurous are interested in flavored "milks"—everything from standard fare such as chocolate and strawberry to more creative varieties such as corn. With large quantities of sugar and relatively low milk content, these boxed desserts aren't valued for their nutrition. On the other hand, they are reminiscent of flavored coffee creamers—so if you're missing those you could give these a try.
Milk by the box
Yi Li plain flavor> The blue label is my favorite as it has more milk fat content
Meng Niu wheat flavor> Tastes like the milk left in a cereal bowl. Pretty tasty if you like that kind of thing
Meng Niu walnut flavor> Reminds this Canadian of maple-walnut ice cream. Yum.
Meng Niu corn flavor> Tastes like candied corn—I couldn't finish mine.
"Milk does a body good" was the National Dairy Council's slogan in the '80s and '90s, used to raise a generation of Americans on dairy products. And while the sentiment was shared by white populations in most other Western countries, it's not necessary valid for all populations of the world.
Japan, for instance, the country with the longest average life expectancy, doesn't generally use milk in its cuisine. Research has shown that the majority of the world's adult population is lactose intolerant—meaning that their bodies cannot break down the sugar component that constitutes 5 percent of cow's milk.
Originally all humans were intolerant of milk from other mammals, but nomads who lived with animals eventually began drinking milk, as doing so was both more sustainable and more efficient than slaughtering and, perhaps, the only way to survive in uncultivated grasslands. Around 10,000 years ago people in various parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Northern Europe started domesticating cattle, and the people descended from such tribes today show a higher tolerance to lactose. This is especially true of Northern Europeans as well as the Fulani and the Massai in Africa, while Native Americans and Southeast Asians are largely lactose intolerant, indicating the possibility of a genetic correlation.
However whether or not the gene is present in humans from birth, individuals who consistently drink milk from a young age seem to develop a tolerance to it—as mentioned, it's not uncommon for Chinese parents to feed their children milk when they themselves refuse to drink it!
This article by Heather Smith was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 8 ("eat+drink"). Assitance from Tan Juan and Tang Yun.