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July 17, 2011

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Mozzarella magician

Great Napoli pizza needs great mozzarella cheese and some of the very best mozzarella in Shanghai is made by Kyeong Joo Lee, a South Korean woman who delivers fresh cheese daily to Italian restaurants such as Issimo and La Strada.

"At the beginning, Westerners didn't believe that I, an Asian, can make authentic mozzarella cheese. But now I often receive touching letters from Italian clients who said, 'Your mozzarella gave me a piece of my country, my memory'," Lee, who goes by KJ, told Shanghai Daily.

Only the early bird gets fresh cheese, she said, so early one morning we went to her workshop Sololatte, which means "Just Milk" in Italian.

"Every morning at 6am, I come here, heating the machine, preparing the ingredients and dealing with the orders," KJ said as she showed me around the workshop that she opened in April 2009.

KJ uses imported high-fat and high-protein German cow milk, salt and rennet (an enzyme that makes milk coagulate), and she carefully controls the pH. Unlike some mozzarella makers, she does not use water buffalo milk, which has a strong taste that does not appeal to Chinese palates. She emphasizes that the best mozzarella anywhere in the world is the freshest mozzarella.

The workshop produces five to six kinds of cheeses daily. On one side of the working table, classic mozzarella is immersed in the mineral water to prevent it from oxidizing and losing its milk flavor. On the other side, assistant Liu Suqing is using a string of water parsley to tie off a burrata ball, an Italian cheese ball with an outer shell of solid mozzarella and the inside containing mozzarella and cream.

"Using water parsley comes from the Korean way of making dumplings, which not only locks in the flavor but also shows customers that the cheese is freshly made that day, since the bright green parsley color only lasts for a day," she explained.

Another assistant is making stracciatella, hand stretching a mozzarella ball into thin, angel-hair pasta-like strands and bathing it with cream. KJ said this is very popular with locals because it's not very salty but has a strong milk flavor and creamy mouth feel.

Besides, they also produce bocconcini, a semi-soft unripened mild cheese; treccia, mozzarella twisted to form a plait; and sfoglia, a paper-thin mozzarella used to wrap fish or shrimp, made into roll.

KJ's cheese dream started 14 years ago when she was a postgraduate student studying architecture in Milan.

"In Italy, you can taste various cheeses, from soft gorgonzola to hard Parmesan. However, for me, an Asian tooth, mozzarella is more friendly and pleasant," KJ said. When she first tasted the cheese, she knew it would be part of her life.

One day in Shanghai, she found that market-bought mozzarella couldn't meet her standard of freshness. Therefore, she tried to make it herself.

"I know how to make tofu (sometimes called Chinese cheese), so in my ignorance, I thought making mozzarella should be so easy. But it's actually far more difficult than I expected," said KJ.

As an East Asian with no related food experience, learning how to pasteurize and stretch was complicated and difficult. "But the temptation from Italian cuisine made it hard to resist," she said.

To further demonstrate her love of Italian food culture, KJ served Caprese salad - slices of tomato and mozzarella topped with olive oil, vinegar and basil.

I tasted it. The cheese was very creamy, with a rich and pure milky flavor lingering on the palate, while the tomato and dressing created some lighter sensations.

"Now, you know what Italian style means - cooking simply and giving the most value to the ingredients," KJ said, aptly describing the essence of Italian cuisine.

Making mozzarella in Shanghai is trickier than making it in Milan, which has more consistent weather and much less humidity.

"The humidity of two cities is totally different. I still remember the first time making mozzarella here - the recipe copied from Italy didn't work."

To maintain quality and flavor, she has to adjust the temperature and heating period for pasteurization according to the weather. Every afternoon, after completing all orders, she records the outside temperatures and her corresponding pasteurizing temperature in her cheese diary.

Making mozarella in Shanghai is also more expensive than in Europe because domestically produced milk in China is primarily for drinking, not cheese making. The proportion of fat and protein - crucial for flavor - are lower than in European cheese-making milk, so she imports from Germany.

Twelve liters of milk can produce only 1 kilogram of mozzarella, which makes the cheese costly.

KJ produces only in small quantities, but she has big hopes.

"One day, my mozzarella will be the best in China - no, in Asia, even, outside Italy," she said.


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