Rubing: The Chinese Cheese You Never Knew

Maybe you've heard it said that Chinese food in China is nothing like Chinese food in the States. Well, the saying is a bit of malarkey. This doesn't mean there's no distinction between what you'd find in a Chinese restaurant, and an American restaurant serving Chinese food. Rather, most dishes from an American Chinese restaurant bear a resemblance to something that could be found in China, but they'd account for a small portion of what's out there to eat.

Ok, glad that's out of the way.

I came to Kunming—the capital of Yunnan Province in the Southwest—to study Chinese and, incidentally, to taste all of these things that will not be found at your local Hunan Garden or Dragon What-Have-You. In the absence of a picture menu, the ordering process for me in China goes something like this: point to one of the dishes on a nearby table. Or, preferably, point to things on the menu with the longest name and a suitable price.

This strategy succeeded in introducing me to a gaggle of new flavors and ingredients. Not surprisingly, more than a few times I ended up ordering some iteration of guts-'n-noodles. Such a dish isn't completely without its charm, but usually the surprise of tasting what I'd blindly ordered was altogether elating.

After a few months of being consistently pleased by the exotic foodstuffs, I began to miss certain foods. Specifically, I missed cheese. Imported cheese, like hand-job parlors, can be found in Kunming—both can get kind of pricey, and for what? I have my own hands and Yunnan produces its own cheese, the most common being rubing.

This is a fresh cheese made from sheep's or goat's milk. The cheese was originally produced by the region's minority groups, although it is now widespread in the province and pillows of it can be found in just about any produce market in Kunming for 30-40 RMB/kg (about $5).

Raw, its flavor suggests an alpine barnyard. Whole bricks of rubing are the size of large dictionaries and white as porcelain. In fact, it looks a lot like tofu from a distance. Beyond the superficial resemblance, rubing has none of tofu's mushy cleavage planes. This is a very sturdy cheese, and since it does not melt can be cooked in many different ways—and take on just as many textures.

Unlike many traditional dishes in Yunnan, most rubing applications call for a minimalist approach. Outside of restaurants, it is often stir-fried with broccoli and tomato. Sometimes it is fried until the surface is crisp and golden, then dressed with a sprinkling of salt. Steaming rubing with sticky-rice wine produces a flavor and mouthfeel that recall a blintz.

Truth be told, rubing is no stand-in for the Western cheese I was raised on. It certainly lacks the sharpness, but its unctuousness is enough to remind me of what I'm missing. And sometimes that's enough for a country that isn't so much into dairy.

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