Ever since Sihan Zhou tried cheese for the first time she’s been captivated by its flavour and texture and on the hunt for more.

Her first taste was at the age of seven when she ate a Hawaiian pizza with her family at a recently opened Pizza Hut restaurant in Beijing. The cheese topping was unlike anything else she had eaten and she was instantly hooked.

“It’s special because in China we don’t have something like that,” said Zhou, a 20 year old student of math and finance at Wuhan University. “When we go to eat Western food we try to order something that is made of cheese.”

While Zhou doesn’t cook often in her dorm in Wuhan, a city in China’s central Hubei province, when she’s home on winter and summer break she likes to explore recipes that incorporate cheese. “Mozzarella is my favourite,” she said, adding that she and her friends love to see the gooey strings when the cheese is hot.

The country's bourgeoning wine sales have also helped cheese's popularity.

But it's not just China's foodies like Zhou who are discovering the deliciousness that is fromage. There's an increased appetite for dairy products, driven by flourishing international tastes amongst Chinese consumers, many of whom now travel and study abroad. The expansion of Western-style fast-food chains and restaurants has also put cheese on the menu. And, the country's bourgeoning wine sales have helped cheese's popularity as gourmands learn the two pair well together.

A slice of the market

Cheese sales in China rose by 20% in 2015 to 3.5bn yuan (about $540m), compared with a year earlier, and average unit prices increased 3%, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.

Most of China’s cheese is imported from New Zealand and Australia and appetites for packaged cheese — cheddar, Gouda and the like — have grown the fastest. Like Zhou, many Chinese first discover cheese in Western restaurants and then want to experiment with it in their kitchens at home.

The country’s younger generation is driving much of the cheese trend.

The country’s younger generation is driving much of the cheese trend. Many Asians are lactose-intolerant, but younger, more affluent couples and their children are exposed to — and can afford to try — Western foods, contributing to a slight shift in diet. While those suffering from lactose intolerance have difficulty digesting fresh milk, they can often eat dairy products like cheese and yogurt without discomfort as the fermentation process breaks down the lactose in milk.

Children’s cheese products, such as string cheese, which are marketed as high in calcium and protein have also helped boost growth, market researchers say.  And, with food scandals eroding trust in some Chinese domestic brands, many consumers have become accustomed to imported milk powder and other items from abroad that they view as safer.

Packaged, block cheese accounts for more than 50% of the market. Sliced cheese, for burgers and sandwiches, is the second most popular segment, followed by grated and cream cheese, respectively, according to research firm Mintel Group. More “fragrant” types of cheese, such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola, still remain niche products in China. 

With so many cheeses being imported, prices for hunks of basic cheddar and Parmesan can add up quickly. A 250g block of Dutch Farms cheddar at a foreign import market costs about 35 yuan ($5.40) in Beijing, while artisanal cheeses can cost upwards of 100 yuan ($15.43).

Zhou said she often buys her cheese online, where prices can be nearly 50% less than in the grocery store. To ensure she’s buying a quality product, she purchases from an online seller who has been in business for several years and reads many reviews before making a selection.

Homegrown entrepreneurs

Liu Yang is one of a handful of domestic cheese makers trying to tap the Chinese marketplace. After learning how to make cheese in France, Liu spotted a gap in the Chinese market. So, he imported equipment from France and started his Beijing-based company, Le Fromager de Pekin, in 2009.

When I opened my cheese shop in the beginning about 95% of my clients were foreigners living in Beijing. Today, I have more Chinese customers than foreign customers.

His cheeses are gaining traction among Chinese and foreigners alike, who can order online or pick them up in several stores in the capital. Products range from a “Beijing Grey” camembert with black pepper crust to a Tomme, which is a type of cheese made in the French Alps and Switzerland. His cheese is also served at a handful of restaurants in the city.

"When I opened my cheese shop in the beginning about 95% of my clients were foreigners living in Beijing," Mr. Liu said. "Today, I have more Chinese customers than foreign customers."

Niche vs mainstream

While the cheese market in China is expected to continue growing, cheese might be destined to remain a niche product outside of the mainstream Chinese diet.

“Cheese is more used to make western-style food, which is not a part of a typical Chinese diet,” Mintel researchers noted in a recent report, adding that cheese isn’t even a mainstream snack and that it’s difficult to change local consumer eating habits.

But for Isabella Chen, a public relations staffer in Shanghai, cheese became a daily staple for her when she studied abroad in Marseille in 2013. “I bought one ham and cheese and I was totally shocked that it tasted so great,” she said.

Cheese might be destined to remain a niche product outside of the mainstream Chinese diet. 

Unsurprisingly, when she came back to Shanghai last year she found it difficult to find good cheese unless she went to a fancy restaurant or imported food market. She recently ate at a Spanish restaurant, where a small plate of cheese with only five or six pieces cost 180 yuan (about $28). At home, she only buys cheese when friends come and visit.

As for her preference, “I was afraid of blue cheese at the beginning, but now it’s my favourite one,” Chen said. “Some say it’s stinky. I say it’s just a strong, pure flavour and that’s why we love cheese.”

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