Korea's Love Affair with Cheese
Alright Korea, listen. Have a seat. The time has come. We gotta talk about cheese.
Two years ago I was sitting in a bar in New York City’s Koreatown with my friend. This guy didn’t really know much about Korean food or culture, but I got him fucking with soju so we started to hit 32nd street pretty regularly. On this occasion, we decided some anju [안주] were called for, and he left it up to me to order. I got us a plate of stir-fried pork and octopus [오삼불고기], a classic, and then a guiltier pleasure: cheese ddukbokki [치즈떡볶이]. While Koreatown’s offerings may not always represent the most authentic Korean food, cheese ddukbokki is nothing out of the ordinary.
When I asked him what he thought, my friend replied that everything was great -- the pork and octopus, the ddukbokki. Just, not the cheese. The cheese is a little weird.
I’ll admit, at first encounter, it doesn’t really make sense. East Asian food in general is devoid of dairy, let alone cheese, so to westerners who have a sense of what cheese is “supposed” to go with, dishes like cheese ddukbokki can be… kinda gross. But as far as Western sensibilities, cheese ddukbokki is probably among the least offensive, because nowadays Koreans put cheese on everything. Cheese ramyun, cheese jjimdak, cheese soondae, and on and on.
I want to make clear right now, while I’m saying I understand why non-Koreans might find it strange, I’m definitely not saying there’s anything wrong with it. That being said, there are a lot of reasons why, historically, cheese doesn’t really make sense in Korea.
For the same reason Korean beef is crazy expensive, dairy doesn’t quite belong either; Korea is a small, highly mountainous country. You can raise pigs, chickens, and fish, but the land isn’t nearly spacious or flat enough to be raising a lot of cows. If you don’t have enough cows to make beef a prominent part of the diet, you definitely don’t have enough to start introducing dairy.
Second, of course, is the lactose intolerance thing. As of 2013, a full 90% of Koreans were lactose intolerant, which creates kind of a chicken or egg question. But whatever came first, a physiological barrier to eating dairy should come in the way of a healthy love of cheese, right?
Except, watch five videos from online Korean cooking channels like Dingo Food or Cookat Korea, and chances are four of them have some cheese in them somewhere. Hit a newly opened spot in one of Seoul’s hipper areas (Hongdae, Hannamdong, Garosugil), and whatever they’re serving, they probably do a cheese version as well. For a culture that reveres its traditional cuisine so much, how did cheese infusion reach this point?
A major part of it, almost certainly, is the SPAM effect; American GI’s during the Korean War received cheap, fatty rations that weren’t easily perishable. Included in these were canned pork products and, you guessed it, processed cheese slices. When the war wrapped up and the GI’s left, many of the rations didn’t. Hence Korea being SPAM’s second-biggest market, while American cheese slices took a little longer to catch on.
Actual cheese can probably be traced back to a Belgian missionary who came to the country in 1959. Appointed to Imsil, the newly ordained priest apparently missed the comforts of home so much that he started raising goats and making his own cheese.
But with the exception of specialty shops and maybe a wine bar here and there, cheese in Korea is really limited to two varieties: American cheese, and shredded mozzarella, usually referred to as pizza cheese [피자치즈]. And I’m not gonna front – some of these combinations actually work. The aforementioned cheese ramyun is a pretty slick move after a couple of rounds of soju. Cheese dak kalbi [치즈닭갈비], hunks of spicy chicken breast/ribs served with melted mozzarella, is hard to say anything bad about. But whether or not you can get on board with the cheesiness (I know lots of people on both sides of the aisle), there are a few more reasons to question why exactly it’s so popular.
As mentioned, the vast majority of Koreans’ bodies literally aren’t equipped to eat cheese. Admittedly, this may be less of an issue with American cheese singles, which have barely any real dairy in them, and I low-key have my suspicions about the mozzarella most spots use too, because it’s really stringy and not particularly tasty. So okay, even if we look past that, as well as the lack of precedent, another major factor is the Korean attention to balance in food.
One of the things that makes authentic Korean food so unique is how meticulously ingredients are used to combine flavors that contrast, but in a way that creates overall harmony in the dish. There’s a whole collection of adjectives in Korean that describe foods in which this harmony doesn’t happen; one of them is neukkihada [느끼하다]. While there isn’t an exact English translation, the word basically connotes something that is overly rich, greasy, heavy, hearty, etc. A nice dose of cheese on top of a Korean dish is a real easy way to make it neukkihae real quick. In fact, Koreans even use the adjective to describe when someone or something is being cliché or over the top, what we in English call cheesy.
At one point, I asked a Korean friend of mine why he thought cheese was such a big thing. “It’s the stringiness,” he explained to me – a lot of Koreans grew up on western cartoons where cheese is shown as gooey, stretchy, and elastic. If you’re from a country where cartoons are your first real exposure to cheese, it makes sense that shitty shredded mozzarella and orange American singles would fulfill your expectations.
I’m really not against fusion of cuisines. While cheese historically doesn’t fit in well with the Korean diet, it’s 2017 – people can travel more easily than ever before, pretty much anything can be imported and exported, and we have Lactaid pills. Cuisines evolve, and if Korean cooks experimenting with adding cheese is the natural next step, I’m all about it.
However, if Korean food is going to continue in this direction, I think Koreans can do better by way of cheese selection. American cheese is a guilty pleasure and everyone loves some stretchy mozzarella cheese from time to time (I’m not using the term “cheese pull” because it’s fucking stupid). But even though funky, soft French camemberts or sharp, crumbly Italian parmesans have even less history in Korea than American singles (save for that one Belgian guy, I guess), I wouldn’t be surprised if Koreans had little trouble embracing cheeses that even some Americans shy away from. Think about it; virtually every traditional Korean ingredient is fermented. Have a spoonful of a strong doenjangjjigae [된장찌개], let along a good chunggukjang [청국장] and tell me it doesn’t have a cheesy taste. Other than the texture, which in some cases could actually be close to a soft tofu [두부] (that might be a stretch, but still), I don’t see cheesy flavors being particularly unfamiliar to Koreans, and with a lot of trial and error they could potentially work well with Korean dishes.
There is one thing I wanna put to bed right now, and this one is for all the Koreans. It’s come to my attention that spray cheese, cheese in a can, easy cheese, whatever you want to call it, is kinda making it in Korea right now. I’ve been seeing it on shelves, in videos, in friends’ cribs. Look, there are people that shit on American singles, because that’s barely even cheese at all, and I’m not doing that. There’s a time and a place for shitty, chemical-laden foods, and that’s fine. But cheese in a can… just don’t. I’ve never met an American that eats it, and before it gets too big in Korea, I just want y’all to know this: you’re better than that. You deserve better. Do not be eating that trash. Stick some American cheese in the microwave if you’re tryna go that route. But nothing worth eating has ever come out of a spray can. Well, except for whipped cream. But that’s apples and oranges.
Cheese has never had a place in Korean cuisine, but now what once seemed like a trend is looking like it’s here to stay. Purists probably abhor this, and I get that. But look, clearly the people like it, so it’s gonna happen regardless. I think people in Korea could be making more informed choices about the cheeses they use and how they use them, but at the end of the day, taste and a sense of what “goes together” is entirely cultural. If the way cheese is being used works for the Korean palette, great. If you haven’t been around Korean cuisine a lot, it can be strange. But if you’ve spent enough time on the streets of Seoul, drunk, hungry, slutty, whatever – you know a plate of cheese ddeokbokki is pretty banging.
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Photo Credits: Author, @orangeonebox, @_ansj76, @jhe0331, @youngnii