Yunnan is a huge province on the south-western fringe of China and it’s cuisine is as colourful as the vast array of ethnic groups that live there. One of the Yunnan dishes that my fiancé keeps talking about till now is the goat cheese tofu with ham.
Goat cheese tofu or ru bing 乳饼 is a Yunnan specialty, made with milk from mountain goats. The process is just the same as making paneer cheese, pressing the milk curds into blocks of solid cheese/tofu. As for the ham, the ancient town of Nuodeng in Yunnan is famous for their salt cured hams 诺邓火腿. These hams are cured with salt derived from the salt well inside the ancient village. The food documentary A Bite of China documents this amazing process in detail. Just like pepperoni and mozzarella, the rich flavours of Nuodeng ham pairs perfectly with the muted flavours of goat cheese tofu.
Since I’ve already tried my hand at making paneer cheese (check out my previous post on paneer cheese experiment), making Yunnan cheese shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing is to find some goat’s milk. My local dairy co-op shop nearby sells fresh goat’s milk from Malaysian farms. It won’t be as rich as the milk of mountain goats in Yunnan but that will do. Local goat’s milk come in tiny bottles of 250ml and is more than double the price of cow’s milk. So I proceeded with this kitchen project with 500ml of goat’s milk at a cost of approximately RM12 (equivalent of US$3).
According to the ru bing recipe that I found on a Chinese cooking website, 5 pounds of milk should yield about 1 pound of cheese. With my 500ml of milk, I am prepared to accept a small yield for my first goat cheese experiment.
- In a saucepan, bring goat’s milk to a boil.
- Turn off the heat and stir to let it cool for about a minute, the temperature should now be about 80 degrees Celsius. Stir in some rice vinegar. Look out for any curdling as you pour the vinegar. As soon as you see curds appear, stop adding any more vinegar. The pH should now be around 3.4 to 3.8. Let the milk rest for 3-5 minutes so the proteins can fully form into curds and settle.
- Clip a cheesecloth over a pot. Pour the curds onto the cheesecloth and and rinse the curds with some water. Let the liquid drain.
- When the liquid comes to a slow drip, gather the cheesecloth and wrap the curds into a square block. Put a flat heavy object over it to press the remaining liquid out. Let compress for 24 hours (keep it in the fridge if the weather is warm).
- Cut the block of cheese into thin pieces.
- Thinly slice some Nuodeng ham and soak them in hot water for a few minutes to get rid of some of it’s saltiness.
- Slit the cheese in the middle just enough to insert the ham, but not cut through all the way to the end. You want to sandwich the thin slice of ham into the pocket of the cheese.
- Pan fry the cheese till golden on each side. Serve with a mixture of salt and pepper (or sichuan pepper powder).
- At Yunnan restaurants, a dipping powder is provided on the side. It is usually made up of sichuan pepper powder and salt. Since I don’t have sichuan pepper, I substituted with black pepper. Both works well to enhance the taste of the cheese.
- Traditionally, an acidic solution made from a local Yunnan herb is used for making cheese. But for convenience of the modern household, vinegar is sufficient. If you are making small batches like me, pour the vinegar by the spoonful to avoid over-pouring. If you are making a big batch of a few litres of milk, then you can pour directly from the bottle until reaction occurs.
Indeed, the goat cheese has a much better texture than cow milk cheese. It has a fine, silky and creamy texture that is different from paneer made from cow’s milk. When pan fried, some of the cheese melts slightly to meld with the ham inside. The smell of goat cheese here is mild, and is negligible when paired with salt and pepper powder. It’s almost like pan fried tofu but with a more robust flavour.
As you can see from the pictures, my yield is a thin piece of cheese about 12×12 cm. The cost of this tiny piece of cheese is a little over RM12 (US$3), not including my ham costs. Conclusion: goat cheese doesn’t come cheap unless you have a mountain full of them. So enjoy the little luxury that is this goat cheese tofu with ham. Bon apetit!