The Battle over Cheese: Cheese in the East


The other day, I visited an American beer garden known as Tap Planet just few blocks away from the Nanjing University Campus. This is not only a place where expats relax and enjoy a good pint of IPA, but a new hub for the rising middle class in China. Tap Planet offers a wide variety of locally brewed Chinese beers as well as American-style food.

After receiving my basket of chili cheese fries, anticipating a savory yet unhealthy snack, expecting mounds of cheesy strands on top of salted cuts of potatoes, I felt somewhat naïve.

Where’s the cheese?

There was no cheese, I was informed.

“Chinese people aren’t fans of cheese.” The waitress politely explained.

My logical brain nearly ventured to dispute that comment.  How was it possible that the Chinese aren’t big on cheese? Dairy and cheese products are present in Chinese and foreign markets. Within a mile radius of Nanjing University, there are about 10 pizza eateries, including the global franchise Pizza Hut. Not a fan of cheese? I beg to disagree.

Since Pizza Hut’s debut in China more than 15 years ago, the nation has latched onto the pizza frenzy. According to Yum Brands, there are more than 400 cities with 1,400 restaurants in China. While ads depict Chinese nuclear families and friends flocking to a fine-dining atmosphere and feasting on a giant pizza pie, the reality of my own cheesy mess made me reflect on its influence in the dragon kingdom.

What is cheese to the Chinese? To us, it’s a staple for our grilled cheese sandwiches. What does “qie shi” (a phonetic representation) or “nai lao” (which roughly translates to milk curds) represent in a booming nation?  It is always amusing when locals and even my own relatives interrogate me about cheese, as if it was an addiction, an influence that needed intervention. According to Euromonitor International, cheese remains a niche market for the majority in China.

A Munchies article “China’s Cheese infatuation Is Getting Ripe” notes the niche market attracting the rising middle class as well as the wealthier population of China. Still, cheese imports are lower than other popular imports, such as red wine and chocolate.

For now, cheese is not only a niche market in China, but also a status symbol for the wealthy.  

My memories of cheese are also laced with learning. I recall watching Sesame Street and learning how cheese is made, visiting pizzerias for field trips in elementary school, and an epiphany in college when I studied about cheese in France and Italy. I have vivid memories of my immigrant family and myself eating a sausage and jalapeno pizza (deadly combination) and navigating the dairy section to find a soft cheese.

I wonder if there will come a time when cheese is not defined as a status symbol in China, when cheese in all its glory will be accessible to people from all walks of life. I wonder if there will be a day when people will understand cheese, know their cheeses, and even make pizza at home.

I remain optimistic. Fear not, with special thanks to Pizza Hut, which has catered to cheese cravings and even driven local cheese shops to sprout up in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. The influence of cheese has laid down its curds in the Middle Kingdom with more and more people hungry for its savory and yet pungent goodness.

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