The Proof in the Pudding: A Case for Taking Recipes Seriously (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 25
The idea for this blog goes back a ways. Five summers ago, I was sitting at a table with Yang Yong, a visiting student from China. We were doing what scholars usually do: acting like gluttons for punishment. So we decided to translate a group of medical manuscripts, discovered in a tomb from ancient Northwest China (first century AD). Each day, we sat at my desk on the fifth floor of Thayer and put our endurance to the test. Character by character, we transcribed the Chinese from the pictures of ancient wood slips. And then, in one moment, when I least expected it, I discovered something interesting.
It came in the form of two characters brushed on the top of strip 87A.
I had to squint. But I saw the two characters right: camel + butter.
“What the heck, is that camel butter?” I asked. Yang looked perplexed too. “Can you make butter from camels?” Yang responded with a shrug.
To see if this was even within the realm of possibility, we first looked at the pictures of the site. Being weak at geography, I had to check Google Maps. I noticed that the site was located near Wuwei City, Gansu, almost two hundred miles north of the place where archaeologists had found the ancient noodles. It was smack on the eastern end of the old Silk Road.
Pictures of desert caravans popped into our heads. We imagined pastoral peoples, the ancestors of Mongolian and Tibetan herders with their sheep; Central Asian merchants, speaking tongues distantly related to modern Hindi and Persian; and the Buddhist monk or two. We also visualized Chinese generals, clad in armor.
It was the trailer of Dragon Blade (2015): Jackie Chan, Adrien Brody acting as a Roman legionnaire, lots of dust, gore, and camels. (Our vision of the place perhaps contained fewer historical bloopers).
But camel butter?
None of us knew what that was. Though humanists, we were aware that camels were mammals, and that mammals produced milk. But we had never heard of camel milk, so we googled it.
Apparently, camel milk is a thing. Kim Kardashian is a fan. Of course, it is a superfood that *only* sets you back a hundred dollars.
There was, however, one hitch. Camel milk may be for the rich in the United States, but it is not a very rich drink. It is actually low in fat, which is why Hollywood stars love it. But without fat, it’s impossible to get butter.
My attention, though, was piqued. The question of camel milk got the creative juices flowing. I wondered: Did people in ancient China actually drink milk, or was the camel milk just for the foreigners? I promised myself I would check as soon as the translation was finished. But those questions took on greater urgency some months later. That December, Sofi emerged from the womb. From that moment on, she demanded a bottle every 45 minutes. As she quickly worked her way up from the 67th percentile in weight to the fifth, milk dominated my every thought.
In those early morning feedings, I found myself coming back to the problem.
Asians + milk?
I was confused, because there was this thing called lactose intolerance. In college, I had even taken a multiple choice test about it. As I dimly remembered, it was a condition, one that afflicted more than half the world. Lactose intolerance made it unpleasant, if not dangerous, for people to consume milk. I pictured cramps and runs.
According to popular versions of the theory, lactose intolerance is genetic. It’s supposedly most common in Asia, where people are often born without the mutations that allow them to digest fresh milk after they are weaned. The mutations control whether grownups produce the lactase enzyme, which breaks down the lactose or complex sugars in milk.
If you lack the mutation, the theory further holds, you can still have dairy, but you need to be careful. Avoid tall glasses of milk and ice cream, and stick to yogurt and cheese. Those foods apparently are ok because the lactose has been reduced, or packed with good gut bacteria that eat the pesky milk sugars.
At that point, these ideas (which I have since abandoned) informed my views of milk in Asia. I had also read that lactose intolerance was the reason why you find little milk in the "traditional" Asian diet.
But do genetics prevent Asians from consuming dairy? Lactose intolerance is real. So are milk allergies. But the idea that a whole race of people avoids a whole class of food because of genetics? Come on.
There’s plenty of dairy in Asia. All kinds of dairy. Just read the recipes!
Take India. Some studies estimate rates of lactose intolerance to be as high as 75%. But India is the world’s top milk producing country (followed by the United States and China).
More importantly, India is a paradise for dairy lovers. There is not only a lot of milk, but milk in forms that many Americans have never encountered: aromatic yogurt drinks like lassi, soft non-melting cheeses like paneer and chenna, chewy milk fudges and cakes, and the ubiquitous rice pudding.
For rice pudding:
Start by heating clarified butter (ghee) in a pan, then add a few tablespoons of long grained rice. Quickly sauté the rice, then pour in the milk, about a third of a gallon. Heat the milk on medium low, stirring to ensure that the bottom doesn’t burn. Allow the milk to approach a boil, then turn the flame down to a simmer. The milk will boil down and the rice will soften. Mash, add sugar, and keep simmering. Complete the process by sprinkling in some flourishes: rose water, saffron, almonds. Serve hot or cold.
The proof here is in the pudding (pun intended). And yes, I deliberately picked the South Indian version, because this is where lactose intolerance is said to be highest on the Sub-Continent. But food lovers will notice that the star ingredient is whole milk, and not some lactose-reduced product. Heating or boiling down milk only increases the amount of milk sugar you get sip for sip.
Rice pudding is not the only lactic delight in the wildly diverse world of South Asian cuisine. My husband and I regularly gorge on a Northern Indian “doughnut” called gulab jamun. To prepare it, mix milk powder, flour, and soda (a leavening agent). Then add yogurt, lemon juice, and milk, and knead the mixture into a dough. Divide the dough into small balls, then fry the balls in hot ghee until golden, and drain. Place them into a hot syrup and soak for several hours.
Like the pudding, this delightful recipe features sugar and milk. The milk powder is like condensed milk: it’s concentrated milk sugar.
If you’re tempted to think that lactic love is new to India, think again. Sure, milk consumption has ridden on the coattails of increasing GDP and the spread of refrigeration. But dairy goes back a long way in Indian history. Scholars believe that milk products became fixtures in religious ceremonies and royal diets more than three thousand years ago. These foods were mainstays of the diets of herders who invaded India from Afghanistan. These conquerors, who called themselves the Aryans, swept first into the Indus Valley in the northwest, then made their way east, before heading south.
The ancient Aryans evidently had a high opinion of cows and cows’ milk. Milk was sacred. The ancient Indian system of medicine (Āyurveda) also ascribed curative properties to cow dairy: yogurt, curds, and even fluid milk. One foundational work on Āyurveda, in fact, describes milk in the following way: “Milk is said to be the greatest of vivifying substances, the elixir of life!” (Thank you Professor Brick for the translation!)
Cow’s milk ghee -- a kind of clarified or heated butter traditionally made from churning yogurt -- enjoyed the most esteem and remains a superfood in Ayurvedic circles. If you don’t believe me, check out this video.
The Indians were not alone in regarding milk as something special. If we move east, dairy products have historically occupied an important role in the diets of the people in the Eastern Steppe. This group includes Tibetans, who herd yaks in alpine meadows; people in Central Asia, who domesticated horses and made a habit of downing bubbly horse milk; and Mongolians, who have long consumed copious amounts of cow and sheep yogurt.
The Chinese also prove to be no exception. In recent centuries, they haven’t been prolific milk chuggers, but mostly for economic reasons. After doing a little digging, I noticed that people in China historically consumed dairy when they could afford to -- not just the milk of cows, but also sheep, donkeys, horses, yaks, and buffalos. And yes, I discovered the occasional reference to the milk of camels.
While looking for the camel butter, I also found recipes for many milk-based dishes. Wontons stuffed with paneer. Fish stewed in milk. Tea prepared with cream. Plenty of yogurt and cheese: fresh, stretched, and preserved in ash like thousand year eggs. There’s also a recipe for baklava. (I know there are fans of this sweet treat among you).
What surprised me the most were doctors. Like their counterparts in India, Chinese doctors also thought cow’s milk did the body good. “Milk is the most nourishing of foods,” wrote one healer in the seventh century. “It is far better than meat.” Chinese healers also celebrated the mild cooling action of milk. They insisted that cow's milk in particular was the best thing to give sick people and the elderly. They even went so far as to prescribe it (warmed) for the runs. One of the earliest formulas, in fact, combines milk with sweet-smelling peppers that look like miniature pinecones. With respect to ghee, Chinese doctors also echoed Indian doctors and claimed it was the elixir of immortality.
Some of these recipes survive to this day: soft paneer like cheeses in Yunnan (Western China); brined soft paneer like cheeses near Canton; butter in Western China: especially for tea; bubbly horse milk in Sichuan and Inner Mongolia; yogurt in Beijing; soft, stir-fried and deep-fried milk curds; and pudding -- lots of pudding. Made with sweet rice beer, with ginger juice, or just eggs.
As I look back, it’s really no coincidence that I discovered the reference to camel milk butter at a site in the northwest. The medical strips, in fact, were located smack in the middle of the Silk Road. Most likely, dairy products traveled that trade route, along with flatbreads. By the way, the local Bactrian camels produce milk rich enough for butter.
The Silk Road, furthermore, did far more than move ingredients and specific dishes. Trade routes -- and yes, the pernicious influence of money -- can also stimulate broader cultural changes. As we will see next time, the Silk Road introduced new faiths to China: Nestorianism (a variety of Christianity), Manicheanism (from Iran), Islam (from the Near East), and Buddhism (from India via Central Asia). Buddhism especially would transform Chinese food: not only what people ate, but how they classified their foods, and more importantly, how they understood the relationship between eating and salvation.
As for camel butter, I still don’t have a recipe for it. But I found camel milk a couple years ago in Beijing. It’s not bad. I have since found that confection-makers in the United Arab Emirates use it to make chocolate...
The recipes made me re-evaluate popular ideas about genes and diet. For years, I had assumed that I would be better off without dairy. Nobody in ancient China would have ever thought to eat ice cream, right? As it turns out, there are stories about an evil Chinese emperor who ate camphor-flavored frozen yogurt.
I now give myself permission to just follow my gut. And it is telling me it’s time for another serving of rice pudding -- rice pudding is the stuff of enlightenment.
Thoughts about milk and dairy? Did you try your hand at making some of these recipes? What do recipes tell you about the world? And would you eat chili ice cream?
For the recipe for paneer sabzi, which we made in Food Lab in January 2020 (pictured above), click here.
I highly recommend making your own paneer at home. It's cheap, easy, and tastes a lot better than the store-bought stuff (which is dry). This recipe will *not* work with goat milk (when it is ultra-pasteurized). It's also best to use "gently" pasteurized milk left unhomogenized.
Also check out a butter chicken recipe provided by a former student of ASIAN 258, Sara Farooqui (who ran a food lab for the class in Winter 2018).
More on Chinese Milk and the Science of Lactose Intolerance
Stretched cheese w/glamour shot
We've had many conversations in YellowDig about baklava, check out cheese baklava.
Miranda Brown "Mr. Song’s Cheeses, Southern China, 1368-1644.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 19.2 (Summer 2019): 29-42.
Elaine Khosrova. Butter: A Rich History (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016).
Anne Mendelson. Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (Knopf, 2008)
Andrea Wiley. Re-Imagining Milk (Routledge Series for Creative Teaching and Learning in Anthropology). Routledge, 2019.
Françoise Sabban. “Un savoir-faire oublié: Le travail du lait en Chine ancienne.” Zibun: Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies, Kyoto University 21 (1986): 31–65.
Hilary Smith. "Good Food, Bad Bodies: Lactose Intolerance and the Rise of Milk Culture in China." In Moral Foods: The Construction of Nutrition and Health in Modern Asia, 262-84. Edited by Angela Ki Che Leung and Melissa L. Caldwell (Hawaii, 2019).