Traveling in China I was missing two things: 1) sesame chicken and 2) cheese. The country serves essentially none of either of those in their cuisine, despite the proliferation of sesame chicken specials in every single Chinese take-away joint in America and despite the staple role that cheese plays in much of the rest of the world.
The black hole void of sesame chicken in a country I was once fairly certain invented the dish, is a topic for another time, as I’d like to take a closer look at another seemingly paradoxical culinary contradiction in the above mix: Chinese don’t eat cheese, yet there I was in a Land Cruiser on a bumpy ride through the mountains in search of the country’s first gourmet cheese factory, deep in a poor, remote Tibetan village high in the mountains of Yunan Province, China.
How a cheese factory came to be deep in the heart of China, complete with cheese advisors flown in from Wisconsin (America’s undisputed cheese capital), is a story of how two passionate young Chinese women came to the realization that sometimes it is such paradoxical thinking that can make all the difference.
Born from a winning business plan submitted to a social entrepreneurial competition thousands of miles and world’s away from Yunan, in the halls of Harvard University, Mei Xiang Cheese is the first business venture of Boston, Hong Kong and Shanghai based Ventures in Development. Harvard classmates, Marie So from Hong Kong and Carol Chyau from Taiwan, along with a few friends, disappointed in the lack of focus on development work in China, decided they wanted to do something for the millions in their home country that were being left behind, despite the headline-grabbing economic growth.
Starting with less than $50,000 USD, mostly raised from winning the business plan competition, they set up their non-profit/for-profit, a non-profit social entrepreneurial incubator that would work to set up sustainable, for-profit businesses in Mainland China that would direct their growth and profits into improving the quality of life in the villages that built the businesses. The profits and benefits of a successful business, it is hoped, will trickle down to create jobs and spread wealth within the village, plugging the villagers in a small way into the global economy that was, at one time, leaving them behind.
Ventures in Development’s most successful project to date: Mei Xiang Cheese, follows the women’s strategy to leverage readily available local resources, in the case of the cheese factory: Yaks. Yaks, sort of a cross between a buffalo and a sheep, live well in the high altitudes and harsh conditions of the mountains in China’s interior and have been a staple animal for the Tibetans for centuries. The women partnered with local organizations to scout out and select a village in Yunan to pilot their cheese making process. Then turning the more traditional model of aid a bit on its head, the organization sought paid volunteers from the village to undertake the leadership and management of the to-be-built factory. The found, after an exhaustive search, just one volunteer: Zhuo Ma and her family, who were willing to take the risk and learn about the foreign concept of gourmet cheese making.
With the startup money in hand and a local family to lead the project, they began construction on a cheese processing facility that would turn the Yak’s milk into China’s first gourmet yak cheese. After flying in a professor and cheese expert from Wisconsin (USA), the factory developed a product line and worked to perfect its processing and aging techniques.
Nearly two years after the first brick was laid, on a beautiful piece of land nestled in a valley of pine trees on the banks of a crystal clear cold mountain stream, and four hours on treacherous roads over towering mountain passes to the nearest city (Zhongdian/Shangrila), our Land Crusier came to rest in the misty afternoon weather, were we were hustled into the factory’s restaurant for a cup of tea and—what else—deep fried cheese.
The journey from startup to their now weekly cheese output was not as simple as it sounds, as the challenges were numerous and roadblocks relentless, yet despite a lack of MBAs and large bank accounts, the villagers seem uniquely qualified to persevere.
While we sat comfy in our flashy winter jackets drinking our green tea, having just completed our 4-hour Land Cruiser ride, in the door came a woman with her young daughter who couldn’t have been more than 14-years old. The two, soaking wet and wrapped in thin blankets, had just walked for nearly a day and a half in the sleet and freezing rain over the same mountain pass our Land Cruiser had just bounced and tumbled. The young girl stiff and shivering was clearly in the early stages of hypothermia and was wrapped in a sleeping bag and laid next to the wood-burning stove. “They were walking from town,” we were told, “the only way for them to get from there to here.” None of the locals seemed to blink at the emergency because, as I later learned, adversity was so common here it seemed not at all out of the ordinary. A few days before we arrived, three villagers had been electrocuted and killed at the power station just across the road from the cheese factory. “Most people here live with the goal to simply get to tomorrow,” it was later remarked.
After lunch, we ventured up the mountain for a short tour and to meet Yak herders who were coming over the mountain to deliver the latest milk supply. The rain from the previous week had washed a tree across the only dirt road over the mountain, so the herders were leading their Yaks to meet us halfway.
After leading the yaks up slippery logging roads and trudging through knee high mud, their milk barrels were loaded on the back of our truck bound for the wood roofed cheese factory in the fertile green valley below.
Despite the adversity, these villagers, it seems, always find a way through.
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Ventures in Development is still working to get approval from the USFDA and EU to export to the US and Europe, but their gourmet Yak cheese is now available from the company’s first shop in Zhongdian, Yunan (aka Shangrila) and a few other places in China, including Hong Kong. You can read more about Mei Xiang Cheese at www.shangralacheese.org or by visiting Ventures in Develop at www.venturesindev.org.
I’d like to pass on a special thanks to Ventures in Development co-founder Marie So, her sister Annette and Zhuo Ma and the crew in Langdu Village for allowing me a glimpse into their wonderful little cheese business in the heart of a country that I once thought didn’t know much about cheese.
The interior of the cheese factory has very strict sanitary rules and one of the challenges of building the business has been educating the villagers about the strict government sanitation requirements for food export.
The factory complex is built in one of the most beautiful, pristine and remote wilderness areas I’ve seen on my trip.
L to R: Marie, Ventures in Development co-founder; Annette, Marie’s sister from Hong Kong/London; Mei Ziang Cheese Factory Renaissance man responsible for cheese making/repairs/transportation/taking tourists on tours; Sheena, fellow traveler from Hong Kong and my resident translator (Thanks Sheena!).
On the drive to fetch the milk canisters, we were taken on a short tour of the village and given a peek into a village home. Hanging dried meat in the home’s living room (2nd picture above). The lack of electricity and the gray rainy day made it quite difficult to see when walking through the massive three story house.
The herders led their Yak’s through the mud and cleared the upturned tree to deliver the milk canisters that were necessary to avoid a halt in the cheese production for the week.
What you can do now:
- Leave a comment on the post below.
- View more photos in my Langdu Village Flickr Gallery.
- Visit the website of Mei Xiang Cheese.
- Learn more about Ventures In Development and their other cool startups.
- Read a bit about my thoughts on why this is a great example of social entrepreneurship in A Hand Up, Not Out.