Untapped potential seep from cheese industry

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It’s getting harder to buy food from the store as shelves are devoured by unhealthy processed food. All we see are packaged, processed and canned goods that lead to obesity, heart diseases, diabetes and other serious health conditions if consumed in excess.

The mass production of food based on technology, which has chemical addictive, shelf life extenders, and artificial color, aroma and flavor, is rapidly growing today, but at the same time, consumers are becoming smarter and leaning more toward fresh and organic food. Recognizing this trend, Mongolian food producers began unraveling the potential in the cheese industry and offering organic cheese as a fresh and healthy alternative for the public. This industry is just starting out in Mongolia, but already, it is showing immense potential.

When it comes to cheese, most Mongolians don’t know how to make use of it. Most people know that it goes on pizza or cheese corn dogs, but that’s as far as most know. Women often avoid cheese in fear it will make them gain weight. But in truth, cheese is what you call a whole food. Whole foods are generally good for you as long as you eat in moderation.

Most of the cheese imports we get today are classified as “cheese products” because they contain only small portion of cheese blended with various addictive and artificial flavoring. Unlike mass producing countries, Mongolia crafts organic cheese made with milk of 100 percent grass-fed livestock, which are said to be rich in nutrients and also contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin K-2.

Cheese is a great source of calcium, fat, and protein. It also contains high amounts of vitamins A and B-12, along with zinc, phosphorus, and riboflavin.

“Cheese has as much protein as meat. Cheese contains phosphorus, required for good brain activity. Dairy products like cheese, yogurt and aarts all contain iodine at their most natural state, which promotes hormonal balance and growth, and boosts IQ. Mongolians tend to be intellectually well-developed and this might be connected to the fact that we consume many dairy products like aaruul, milk and yoghurt. Cheese is also rich in vitamin B,” said Ya.Enkhee, the founder and proprietor of Cheese Republic Mongolia campaign and director of Silk Road Magic LLC.

Food technology professor at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, PhD G.Turmunkh noted, “Milk and cheese are great for improving immunity system of the body as it contains high contents of immunoglobulins. This is why we need to regularly consume milk, cheese and other dairy products. It will improve the quality of your life. I believe it is time to revive the Mongolian traditional diet, especially the use of dairy products, to become healthier.”

According to experts, cheese has ample potential to boom in Mongolia as most Mongolians aren’t lactose intolerant like many people in western countries and are accustomed to using dairy products in their everyday life. Moreover, Mongolia houses more than 70 million livestock and produces over 1 million tons of milk each year, despite not fully utilizing its milk collection and supply potential. This is enough to supply milk to dozens of cheese factories.

Mongolia imports around 500 tons of cheese products from abroad, according to statistics of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry. If Mongolia can develop its cheese industry, it can easily meet its domestic demand and even go outward to the global market with its highly nutritious organic cheese, derived from livestock raised through traditional animal husbandry.

The UB Post spoke with Ya.Enkhee, who has been making cheese for 12 years, to get a better grasp of the cheese industry in Mongolia.

Can you tell me how the Mongolian cheese industry is doing right now? When did you start crafting cheese?

The Mongolian cheese industry is still in its cradle. Even though people have attempted numerous times to make cheese in Mongolia since 1995, many of them stopped trying because of various reasons such as the market wasn’t ready, the producers and consumers weren’t ready, lacked of knowledge and expertise in cheese making, and low financial capacity. The two people who remained in the sector since 1995 and continued to craft cheese are Khustai Gouda’s U.Tumurkhuyag, who lives in Altanbulag, and cheesemaker E.Tsetsegee in Erdenetsogt soum of Bayankhongor Province.

Over the years, people who attempted to make cheese locally felt that it was hard to make, that cheese making is a failing business as cheese dries fast and doesn’t sell as much as other products, and that Mongolians haven’t become accustomed to using it in their daily diet. This led most of them to leave the industry or keep it as a hobby. I started making cheese in 2008, but like many of my predecessors, there were times I stopped trying completely or made only small batches just for my restaurant and friends as a hobby. After learning more and more about cheese and its production process for 12 years, I began really making cheese two years ago. Now, I’m crafting around 20 types of cheese here.

I noticed that quite a few cheese companies emerged in Mongolia over the last four years – but it is still less than 10 companies. Following the market trend, people are going abroad and learning about the cheese culture, not just how to eat it but use it as a delicacy. As more people grow closer to cheese, there is a growing demand to produce it locally. The most commonly made cheese in Mongolia are mozzarella, cheddar, and maybe alpine cheese.

Since last year, people have been crafting all kinds of artisanal soft cheese, semi-soft cheese and blue cheese in small batches, not mass production. If I were to compare it to the aviation sector, these types of cheese are like the most advanced fighter aircrafts. They are high quality cheese that require more skill and we are starting to learn to make it, which is significant progress.

In your opinion, why hasn’t the cheese industry been able develop as fast as in other countries?

There wasn’t much of a market. Moreover, herder families now have fewer members. Children of herder families used to return home during summer when schools in Ulaanbaatar closed and helped milk cows and do other chores, but now they prefer to work as a tour guide or work at a mining company. This has lowered the human capacity to milk cows and the amount of milk produced. Even if herders have milk, they aren’t able to sell it.

For example, you wouldn’t sell milk from western provinces like Khovd all the way to Ulaanbaatar, where most consumers are. Instead, they could turn milk into cheese – I reckon that they can produce a kilogram of cheese with 10 liters of milk. However, this wasn’t possible in the past because the market wasn’t ready. The people making cheese didn’t have much knowledge or expertise on cheese making either. This is still the case today. We’re all in the learning phase right now.

Does Mongolia have any unique cheese type or product?

Mongolia is sparsely populated. The agricultural sector hasn’t started to develop or been stimulated. We graze livestock naturally in the countryside. Milk and meat from grazing livestock are always of top quality in the world. We have the opportunity to use our high quality milk to produce regional and local products, but to do that, it’s necessary for people to learn, study and research.

Of course, we can’t compete with mass productions of countries like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy and New Zealand. We have to craft unique cheese originated from our traditional nomadic lifestyle that are made in small quantities but have unique, exquisite taste like wine. When we make the same type of cheese in three different locations, they all taste different because of the difference in climate and the grass that livestock feed on.

For example, a cheesemaker made the exact same cheese with the exact same method in Zuunbayan-Ulaan soum and Bat-Ulziit soum, both of which are situated in Uvurkhangai Province but on two sides of the Khangai Mountain Range. However, their tastes weren’t the same. We can use this as our advantage. It might seem like a disadvantage but we can use it as an advantage and market it as a specific Mongolian product

One of the unique cheese Mongolians make is yak cheese. Can you tell me more about this cheese?

Yaks are semi-feral animals. It doesn’t produce much milk. You’ll probably get about a liter of milk from a single yak.

Countries with high population of yaks are China, Tibet, some states connected to Palmer Mountain in the USA and Nepal. Mongolia probably ranks second or third in yak population. As the milk yield is low, most countries don’t milk them or make products out of yak milk. So it is possible for Mongolia to make products out of it and market it to the rest of the world. But this doesn’t apply to just yak milk. Mongolia has great source of milk from grazing livestock. We have to take advantage of this. Yak milk and cheese might be a shortcut. It might come to the world market first but other unique cheeses (from grass-fed livestock) need to follow. Our products need to contain our history. For example, it should be named “Dorj’s Dairy” or “Baldan’s Cheese”. However, Mongolia is not ready to do this yet. This work might even require a whole generation. People are talking positively like building 100 cheese factories but personally, I don’t think that will work. This is a whole new sector with currently less than 10 companies. Until there are 100 companies, the market and consumers become ready, and food safety and securities matters are resolved, a whole generation might need to pass because cheese making is a big culture.

Cheesemakers say that cheese production is a family business. People need to learn more about it. I’ve been studying about cheese for 12 years. I’ve attended English head cheesemaker Paul Thomas’ master course, an Italian master’s course and several Russian technologists’ courses with French and Swiss trainers. Looking back, I’ve spent a hefty sum of money and time on this work, but I haven’t mastered it yet. So it would be impossible for an ordinary herder to develop a new cheese product in two years and promote it globally. Even a decade wouldn’t suffice.

It is a risky business. For example, we can’t operate if there is a drought or other natural disasters. I have three cheese factories in Uvurkhangai but all three were closed this year because central provinces – Uvurkhangai, Bayankhongor and Tuv provinces – were facing extreme drought and herders weren’t able to graze livestock. Like so, there are so many risks. There is opportunity in cheese making but we need to find the right path. We can’t follow the big shots but we can create cheese that is specific to Mongolia and has unique identity.

How are cheese made in Mongolia different from those made in other countries?

Without saying, it is different from cheese made in factories. Those made in factories use minimal amount of milk and uses many chemical ingredients. Mongolians use pure organic products to make cheese. I’ve heard many foreigners say that they taste “milk” or “cow milk” from Mongolian cheese, which is hard to tell whether it is a compliment or a complaint. This just shows that we’re doing the right thing. We don’t have advanced technology for cheese making right now but we’re using pure milk. This is the main difference – we make organic cheese.

How do you the future of the cheese industry in Mongolia?

It has immense potential to grow but as I’ve said before, this will require a lot more time. I’ve been in this industry for 12 years. I don’t consider myself stupid but hardworking, and I attempt many new things and invest a lot of money in this work, but I still haven’t succeeded. The thing we need the most is patience, the will to learn, and discover our distinctive style. We’re a big country with various types of water, grass and other natural elements.

Most of all, Mongolians aren’t scared of milk. There are many people across the world who fear milk because they are lactose intolerant or have allergies to certain properties of it. But Mongolians don’t. We have so many opportunities. We will stumble again and again – this is for sure – but with government support, the cheese industry can boom. By government support, I don’t mean just financially like making finances accessible to cheesemakers and giving out loans but also to provide incentives to herders for milk supply and collection. There are incentives for cashmere and meat but none for milk. The more herders milk their cows, the more consumers will buy milk and dairy products. Most local cheese factories are struggling due to lack of milk supply. But with incentives, this issue can be resolved.

In general, I see a very bright future for the cheese industry.


Dulguun Bayarsaikhan