Kimchi and Cheese: How crisis made dairy dominate Korean cuisine

The spicy stewed pork ribs emerged from the kitchen. Two attractive TV hosts gawked at them in wonder. They gazed at a dish of decadence. A dish that broke all the rules. A dish that was Korean but smothered in mozzarella cheese. With small tongs one woman grabbed a meaty rib and wrapped it in stringy ribbons of dairy.

This was the hit Korean TV show “Tasty Road,” which featured new hot restaurants around South Korea. This episode sparked Korea’s current love for cheese, but it goes deeper than that. 

Koreans love cheese

The conventional wisdom has been that Asians don’t eat dairy. I remember a short story I read in elementary school in the 1980s. It focused on a Korean-American girl adjusting to two cultures. She considered herself American, but her relatives pressured her to be more Korean. They forbade her to eat pizza because they said, “Koreans don’t eat cheese.”

That was true in the ‘80s. 

Foreign influence and crisis developed the love of dairy on the Korean peninsula, starting with Seoul Milk. The largest dairy company in Korea started during its Japanese colonial period. After that time, Japan would figure again in the 1970s with Yakult Korea. This Korean-owned branch of a Japanese dairy sold yogurt drinks to school children. They’re notable for intentionally hiring an all-woman staff of salespeople, known as “Yakult Ajumma.” These iconic ladies in their mustard colored uniforms pushed carts near schools and were the Korean equivalent of the ice cream truck.

Budae Jjigae. Credit: Richard Lee on Flickrhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/70109407@N00/

After the Korean War, the U.S. infected Korean cuisine with surplus from military bases. Hot dogs, Spam, and processed cheese became part of the culinary landscape. Cheese entered the famous Budae Jjigae, the “Army Base Stew” Anthony Bourdain raved about. Cheese Kimbap populated local diners. Sliced processed cheese found its way into instant noodles. Manufacturers marketed special “Einstein” cheese slices for babies.

In the early 1960s, a Belgian monk created Korea’s first domestic cheese industry in the rural southern county of Imsil. The curds from this village have become a source of pride for South Koreans, enjoying Imsil Cheese on pizzas and grilling it. In fact, some Korean BBQ places offer grilled Imsil cheese as an option alongside shaved brisket. 

We can also talk about how Pizza Hut introduced pizza to Korea in the mid-1980s with ads of stretchy cheese. Yet none of those examples explain why cheese has become so dominant in Korea. These just paint the backdrop. The prelude.

It all comes down to crisis.

When Koreans feel stressed, they want to eat something spicy. It’s a form of cathartic endorphin-laced release. Whenever there has been a national crisis, spicy foods have flourished. 

The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis fired up Buldak craze, an intensely spicy chicken no sane sober human should consume. It used to be all over Korea, but these days, it’s hard to find. 

Then came the 2008 financial crisis. It took a while to hit Korea. When it did, the stressed masses turned to spicy foods. 

A small mom-and-pop shop in the blue collar Sillim-dong neighborhood experienced a surge of customers craving their spicy smoky stewed ribs. The owner of Hahm Ji Bak was thrilled. When he had a breather, he ventured into the dining room and checked in on his customers. They said they loved his ribs. When he offered to get them more, they said that they were having spice overload. They wanted to eat more, but they physically couldn’t.

The owner experimented by melting a mixture of mozzarella and other cheeses with the ribs and dipping them as a fondue. The dairy countered the spice so that the customers could control their level of heat. Word spread about this place, sparking the new influential show Tasty Road to do an episode there.

This coincided with the rise of the “Matjip” movement. This was a renaissance of young people rushing to find the best and newest hot restaurants through social media. Hahm Ji Bak got slammed with new customers. 

Soon came the copycats, not only copying the dish but the name of the restaurant itself. The hipster Hongdae area proliferated with restaurants serving spicy dishes overloaded with cheese. Lines formed outside each of these. The craze spread through Seoul and then throughout all of South Korea. 

“New Iron Plate Chicken” at Flying Chicken 닭날다 in Hongdae

Now Korea is the fifth largest importer of American dairy and growing. It consumes so much cheese, it affects U.S. dairy prices. Yes, your milk got more expensive because of Korea.

When Koreans’ love for cheese in Korean food is influencing global dairy markets, is it too crazy to claim that cheese is now a Korean ingredient?

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1 thought on “Kimchi and Cheese: How crisis made dairy dominate Korean cuisine”

  1. I think you’re spot-on that cheese has been appropriated and is now a home-grown Korean ingredient. I’m not sure how well Korean cheese compares to, say, the best of France or Switzerland, but now that I know about Imsil thanks to this article, I plan to do a bit of food tourism and visit the place. Thanks for writing this piece. Very educational!

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