Rice Beer and Palace "Cheese"
Updated: Jan 6
If you are looking for a savory brie, you’ll be disappointed. There’s not much cheese in palace “cheese.”
The standard English translation not only misses the mark, but also does little justice to the delicate curd. More akin to a flan than a brie, it sports a sweet taste profile.
Nowadays, people regard the curd as a unique Beijing local food, one synonymous with the culinary traditions of the Manchus, China’s rulers during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Hence, the palace in the name. What is more, the curds are sold in dairies owned by Muslim Chinese families, who advertise it as a halal food.
The recipe, however, tells a story different from the modern marketing. For it features only three ingredients: milk, a dash of sugar, and fermented glutinous rice (jiuniang 酒釀). The last is the coagulant. Loaded with a rennet-like enzyme, the juice from the rice transforms warm milk into a smooth curd. Picture the consistency of silken tofu.
According to Carolyn Phillips, fermented rice has long been a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking. People in China consume it like pudding or use it to make sweet rice dumplings for New Year's. Young people even add it to their bubble tea. But as I discovered last year in Shaoxing over Thanksgiving, the fermented rice can deliver a buzz.
The fermented rice is also a byproduct of traditional beer making practices. Crush a ball of Chinese yeast and deposit the powder into a jar of steamed sticky rice. After a couple days, you will get a boozy liquid, which can be consumed as a dessert or used to make curd. Wait a few weeks longer and you’ll have a mild Chinese sake.
Historical sources reveal that Manchus were not alone in appreciating the curd; rich southerners also relished it as early as the seventeenth century. The first mention turns up in the memoirs of a Hangzhou literatus and bon vivant, Zhang Dai (1597–1684). According to this Mr. Zhang, one prepared the treat by “using beer to congeal milk.” A eighteenth-century Yangzhou cookbook similarly notes: “Cow’s milk curdles with beer.”
Western visitors to China confirmed that the curd enjoyed popularity in the Pearl River Delta. In 1888, a Scottish travel writer and painter, Constance Gordon-Cumming (1837-1924), came across it in Canton. The lady mistook the rice beer for vinegar, an understandable mistake (rice beer can taste like vinegar when kept too long). Nevertheless, she got the broad outlines right: “[A] preparation of milk and sugar, curdled with vinegar, is so much appreciated, that in South China there are cows’- milk saloons where, on warm summer evenings, epicures may indulge in this luxury.”
The beer-set curds have since lost their luster in the eyes of Southern foodies. Present-day Cantonese prefer a distinct, but related, product called “Ginger Collides with Milk.” As the name announces, the main ingredient is ginger juice and buffalo milk. Like rice brew, ginger contains a rennet-like enzyme.
Given its historically broad popularity, it is curious that the curd is now a signature Beijing treat and even an ethnic food. Indeed, the rebranding of dairy products in the twentieth century is a rich topic. But that’s a blog for another day.
Whole milk, 200 ml
Fermented Glutinous Rice (jiuniang), 100 ml (for a homemade recipe by Phillips, click here)
Granulated sugar, 10 ml
Instant Pot or steamer
Four 6-ounce ramekins
1. Measure out the milk and sugar.
2. Take 100 ml of fermented rice. This is the combined weight of the rice and juice, and not just the liquid (too much liquid will result in a curd with holes and an overly alcoholic flavor).
3. Strain out the fermented rice and reserve the juice. Squeeze the rice to get as much liquid as possible. For every 100 ml of the stuff, you get about 60 ml of liquid.
4. Heat the milk and sugar in a pot over a low flame, stirring occasionally. Once a few bubbles form at the surface of the milk, shut off the heat.
5. Let the milk cool to 43° C (110°F ), at which point a skin should form at the surface. The milk will be warm but not scalding hot.
6. Stir the fermented rice juice into the milk. Mix to incorporate evenly.
7. Pour the liquid into the ramekins. The fermented rice liquid tends to settle at the bottom of the pot. To prevent uneven consistency in the curds, try adding a little of the liquid first into each of the ramekins and then add a little more from the bottom of the pot. Stir to mix evenly.
8. Steam the ramekins in the Instant Pot for 20 minutes (high pressure). If using a regular steamer, cover the ramekins with foil and steam them over a medium flame for the same amount of time.
9. Allow the curds to cool before removing. The curd should be soft, with the consistency of a flan. You can add osmanthus syrup, raisins, sunflower seeds, and peanuts, but the curd is also good on its own.