The popular idea that the Chinese have always shunned milk products is quite inaccurate. So is the notion that lactose intolerance accounts for the very widespread modern Chinese dislike of milk, butter, and any dairy product that doesn’t come out of a can.
The French historian Francoise Sabban exposed these mistakes more than 20 years ago. As she shows, descriptions of milking practices, dairy products, and the use of milk in cooking are routinely found in many sources, including agricultural and culinary treatises from the sixth to the 18th century.
Why the dominant Han Chinese ethnic population eventually developed an aversion to the mere idea of tasting milk or butter, and why the use of these foods became almost entirely limited to a few ethnic minorities in the Mongol or Uighur outposts of the empire, are among the great puzzles of history. Certainly the use of cows’ milk today is a piece of Westernization that has penetrated very unevenly into Chinese society. But in recent times an intriguing dish called “fried milk” has achieved currency in some of the areas most deeply affected by European contact, chiefly in Kwangtung (Canton) province and Hong Kong. It should not be confused with another local dish of the same name, a dessert made out of a superthick, starchy milk-based custard cut into squares or diamonds and then deep-fried in a batter coating in the same way as its probable inspiration, the Portuguese leite frito.
The second or savory kind of “fried milk” slightly resembles fu yung, at least the very delicate versions that use only egg whites. It, too, could be described as a custard, but a lightly set savory one made with a combination of milk, egg whites, and a little cornstarch, all stir-fried to the texture of scrambled eggs. When I’ve had it in Chinatown restaurants, it usually contains crab or shrimp and sometimes is served on a bed of fried cellophane noodles or rice sticks. Browned pine nuts are the usual garnish.
This version of fried milk is great as part of a simple Chinese dinner menu. I’ve also found that people who won’t touch egg yolks with a ten-foot pole like it as a breakfast or brunch dish — especially with the vegetarian substitutions suggested below. It’s a useful recipe to know about when you’re wondering what to do with a bunch of egg whites after making something like lemon curd or Hollandaise sauce.
I first came across the dish in Ken Hom’s fascinating book Fragrant Harbor Taste, a tribute to the food of Hong Kong, and have followed his recipe for many years with only minor deviations. Hom suggests a combination of fresh and canned evaporated milk. I’ve also had good results with all fresh milk. Experiment with the recipe to your liking; it seems to work equally well with larger or smaller proportions of milk, egg white, starch, and seafood or meat. Yields 5 to 6 servings
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups whole milk (all fresh, or about two parts fresh to one part evaporated)
8 egg whites
4 ounces lump crabmeat or peeled shrimp (whole if small, otherwise diced)
2 to 3 ounces unsmoked Smithfield-style ham, coarsely chopped
Handful of pine nuts
2 to 3 tablespoons peanut oil
Cilantro for garnish
Mix the cornstarch and salt to a smooth paste with a few tablespoons of the milk. Add the remaining milk and egg whites and use a whisk to stir — not whip — the mixture until well combined but not quite perfectly blended. Stir in the crabmeat (or shrimp) and ham. Toast the pine nuts in a small dry skillet, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Scoop them out into a bowl before they can scorch.
Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. When it is not quite smoking, pour in the milk–egg white mixture and begin to stir-fry, scooping and scrambling with a spatula (preferably a wok spatula). At first it will be thin and soupy; after a couple of minutes you will notice some thickening on the bottom. Reduce the heat to low and continue to stir-fry for a few minutes longer, until the milk custard has the consistency of scrambled eggs. (Total cooking time is usually about 5 to 6 minutes.) Toward the end it will take on a cheesy consistency and “break,” giving up a lot of liquid.
Now pour the contents of the wok into a mesh strainer set over a bowl to let the watery part drain off before turning the “fried milk” out into a serving dish. Serve at once, garnished with the toasted pine nuts and a handful of cilantro leaves.
Variations: You can replace the shellfish and ham with a few ounces of cooked chicken breast, diced or shredded. For a vegetarian version, eliminate the shellfish and ham and substitute a dozen or so dried shiitake mushrooms (soaked in hot water, drained and coarsely chopped) along with a large handful of scallions or Chinese chives (trimmed and coarsely chopped), slender asparagus tips (blanched or briefly stir-fried), or seeded, chopped tomatoes.
This recipe is from Anne Mendelson's book, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. To read more from her fantastic book, check out The Astonishing Story of Real Milk, from our October/November 2011 issue.
Check out more of Anne Mendelson’s fabulous milk recipes from around the world: