Cheese: China's unexpected new craving

When you think of the cuisines of China, cheese does not come to mind. It simply isn't a part of traditional Chinese cooking. But times are changing.

Western foods are creeping in, and, as CBS News correspondent Seth Doane reports, the Chinese are developing a taste for what the cheese-loving French call "fromage."

He's something of a pioneer. Not because of what he's making; after all, cheese dates back thousands of years. Rather, it's where he's making it: at a workshop on the outskirts of Beijing.

The soft-spoken Liu Yang learned about cheese -- and cheese-making -- in France. In Beijing, he's better known by his company's name: Le Fromager de Pekin.

liu-cheese-making-in-workshop-brollframe2195.jpg
Liu making cheese in his workshop CBS News

"My goal is to teach Chinese people to eat cheese and I hope more and more people will appreciate cheese," Yang said.

Cheese is starting to show up on menus in Beijing. But, historically, the Chinese simply didn't eat it. For starters, there wasn't much milk except in rural regions where cows and yaks roamed.

The arrival of western fast food chains in the late '80s and '90s put cheese on menus, and now, at Beijing's San Yuan Li market, Le Fromager de Pekin cheese is on shelves. Saleswoman Yan Lin told CBS News her sales tactic.

"For the first-timer, I offer them something light, something with a more milky flavor," she says. "They normally accept the taste and buy it."

That's not how shopper Crystal Han remembers her first taste.

"It was stinky, barely edible," she said.

ex3145201frame56.jpg
Liu's cheese in a grocery store fridge CBS News

Showing off his cooling room, Liu called racks of aging goat and cow cheese his "treasure."

"In the beginning, most of my customers were foreigners, maybe 90 percent, but now it's 50-50," Liu said.

Cheese imports to China have been growing by roughly 25 percent each year. Most comes from New Zealand, then Australia and the U.S.

Liu says he gets the milk for his 22 types of cheese from local farms.

cbs-bj00091frame32.jpg
Liu's "treasures" CBS News

"A lot of my consumers are asking me 'where is your milk from?'" he said. "I try to control my cheese -- milk quality."

He insists on visiting each farm to see how cows and goats are raised.

At Beijing's Pinotage wine bar, patrons gingerly sample cheese, sometimes passing on it altogether.

Still, Liu sees a growing curiosity and taste for cheese here. In China, with its 1.3 billion people, that's an awful lot of potential customers.