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Cheese was an unexpected part of Korean cooking until the war, globalisation and trade tariffs changed everything.
Camellia Ling Aebischer

17 Mar 2020 - 11:20 AM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2020 - 11:10 PM

Koreans love cheese. So much so that they’ve built a theme park, international restaurant chain and countless instant noodle flavours centred on the stuff.

According to data from the Korean Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation, the country’s cheese consumption doubled from 2008 and 2018 to 2.5kg of cheese consumed per person per year.

Korea-based blogger, Joe McPherson, wrote that Korea’s cheese obsession can be traced back to a surplus of military items left by the US Army following the Korean War (1950-1953). This surplus also led to the creation of a popular dish, budae jjigae, or ‘army base stew’ which features spam, sausages and instant noodles cooked in a spicy broth and topped with a slice of yellow processed cheese.

A decade later in the 1960s, Korea began making its own cheese domestically under the Imsil brand. In the 1970s, dairy presence increased as Yakult created its own Korean-based branch, selling yoghurt drinks to school children. However, the barrier to increasing dairy consumption was always present with many Korean’s suffering lactose intolerance.

As globalisation took hold, trade agreements flowed, and in 2011 a free trade deal between Korea and the USA, known as KORUS, was ratified.

Koreans began to enjoy the idea of cheese, as it’s a fermented product and is lower in lactose than other dairy items making it easier to digest. Sadly the domestic cheese industry didn’t really take off, so cheese imports increased; so much so that in 2015 the nation became the world’s fifth-biggest importer of cheese, with just over half of its supply coming from the US.

Soothing the spice

If there’s one thing that Koreans love more than cheese, it’s chilli. Nearly every Korean dish is served with a side of kimchi, and many sauces or marinades are based around the fiery Korean chilli, gochujang.

Adding cheese to spicy dishes is often cited for its ability to tone down very hot foods and let diners control their desired level of heat. Not to mention the fact that nearly any savoury thing can be made better with the addition of melted cheese.

Order it.
The eatery pairing Korean chicken with fondue
Unconventional but oh so good.

Popular dishes that have received common cheese additions include buldak (spicy chicken), pork ribs, tteokbokki and even bibimbap.

The movement has made way for the creation of international Korean chains like James Cheeseback Ribs and Goobne. Both stores have outlets outside of Korea, creating a new style of cuisine beloved by both Eastern and Western nations. Goobne, the latter, just opened its first stores in Australia offering UFO fondue chicken (read: chicken wings and a bowl of melted cheese for dipping) and you can get melted cheese on dishes at plenty of smaller Korean eateries.

It may not be your typical pairing, but it’s hard to look at the result and not crave a bite.

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