Ancient Japanese Cheese Has Been Making a Modern Comeback on the Internet

Nationwide Food Cooking 2020.06.04
Quarantining at home, people around Japan have gotten creative in the kitchen.

Wait, Japan Has Been Eating Cheese Since Ancient Times?

Think about traditional Japanese cuisine, and what comes to mind? Is it dairy? While that might be pretty low on your list, it turns out Japan has been making its own cheese-like dairy product since even before the Nara period (710 - 794 CE). The process, a bit different from the curdled milk cheese found in other parts of the world, was brought over from Baekje in Korea around the year 560.

Japanese "So" Is Back on the Scene

The ancient Japanese dairy product we're talking about is called "so" (蘇), and since it's made by through a process of evaporating the moisture out of milk, it's compared to condensed milk or cheese. It's said that when it was eaten in the Heian period (794-1185), they would take 18L of milk and boil it down to just 1.8 liters of so. The luxurious nature of the food is probably why it was generally reserved for special occasions, like feasts or Buddhist events, and sometimes even used as medicine.

Why Now?

With over 1000 years of history, why has so become trendy now in 2020? Well, 2020 isn't just any year, and the unusual circumstances we're all working with have certainly contributed to so's popularity. That's because making so takes a lot of time, and a lot of attention. While we've seen a huge explosion in at-home bread baking all over the world, among a small pocket of Japanese cooks, so has been all the buzz.

The recipe itself is very simple, for any home chefs who are itching to try ancient Japanese cheese. Pour 2 liters of milk into a frying pan, bring it to a boil, and stir constantly for about two hours. When enough moisture has boiled off and it's developed some elasticity, the so can be kneaded into shape and wrapped securely in plastic, and after a day firming in the fridge it will be ready to eat. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of milk.

Supporting the Dairy Industry

While plenty of people have been making so just to try out a new culinary option while they have the time, staying home throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, that's not the only reason. The trend may have started as a way to help Japan's dairy farmers. With Japanese elementary and middle schools shut down due to coronavirus, many dairy farmers have a huge surplus of milk that they can't sell fast enough, resulting in serious losses. Twitter user @bokumike started this "So Challenge" to give people around the country a good reason to buy large amounts of milk, and a fun way to use it. After the challenge was retweeted by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the rest was history.

According to those who committed the two hours and two liters of milk, the end result has a mildly sweet, cheesy flavor, and goes well with lots of toppings. Got two hours to kill and two liters of milk at your disposal? Make your own so and let us know how it goes, on the Japankuru twitter, instagram, and facebook!

(⇩ Below, @bokumike has some recommendations for how to eat your so: drizzled with honey; topped with olive oil, salt, and pepper then served with prosciutto; sliced thin on crackers and topped with jam, spinach, or other veggies; tossed with fruity acerola honey and mixed nuts; mixed (while still in the pan) into rum raisin so; pan-fried and topped with garlic/parsley, miso-preserved vegetables, or brown sugar syrup!)
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