In Korea, they say food has the healing power of medicine, which is perhaps why Koreans are famously picky about their food.
Aside from healthy bibimbap and kimchi, the country is surprisingly partial to junky food, like chicken wings washed down with beer. But even bar fare tends to be herbed precisely and spiced delicately. The sticky sauces coating the wings tend to be much more delicate and piquant than what you find elsewhere.
Foreigners visiting the Korean peninsula do not need to love the food—many herbal flavors can be either too insipid or too bitter, for example—but they will appreciate the way the ingredients are gathered together as if they were being prescribed.
There is one category of food that could not be considered either gourmet or healthful which Koreans cannot get enough of, though.
Cheese—or American-style processed cheddar—has been incredibly popular in all its forms since the country hosted Americans during and after its civil war in the Fifties.
Back then, Korea was so impoverished that people near enough to US army field kitchens would have to subsist on food from them.
Doing so, they soon found a taste for gourmet items like spam, baked beans, hot dogs and spaghetti. At the same time, they were introduced to cheese, usually in processed yellow strips.
Having awoken to the taste, Koreans still combine all these ingredients in a stew with kimchi, onions and red chilli paste, with cheese on top, to produce a quasi national dish.
Experts believe that spicy local food goes well with cheese, as the spiciness from the capsaicin can be diluted when it meets milk fat and protein from the cheese.
This may explain why Korea is often used by cheesemakers as a test market for Asian product launches.
Though the country’s retail cheese market remains very small, it is still one of the fastest growing in the world.
According to the Korea Dairy Committee, Koreans consumed a paltry 2.5kg of cheese per capita in 2018, double that of a decade ago.
Unlike the early days of cheese production in the wake of the civil war, food retailers are now exploring more creative varieties of cheese to meet consumers’ evolving tastes.
Seo-Jin Chung, a professor of nutritional science and food management at Ewha Womans University, has revealed a great deal about Korean tastes for cheese through her work in defining flavors.
Dr Chung’s notable works include a comparison of liking for Korean style salad dressings and beverages between American and Korean consumers. She has also set out to understand the differences between Chinese and Korean consumers’ liking for fresh pears.
Of most interest to cheesemakers looking to develop their market, she has also found that, no matter how hard they try, Koreans will never learn to love strong cheeses like Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano if they don’t like them already.
She conducted taste tests with a group of young Korean women who were not regular cheese-eaters by giving them Brie, Emmental, Gorgonzola, Gouda, Parmigiano-Reggiano and sharp Cheddar. At regular intervals over four weeks, the subjects were asked how they liked the cheeses.
Acceptance levels for Brie, Emmental, Gouda, and sharp Cheddar were found to increase significantly the more often they are consumed.
Yet no matter how many they tried Parmesan, it didn’t taste any better than in the first nibble.
“The study demonstrated that the liking of natural cheese can occur through repeated exposure to the cheese, but with the outcome varying with the type of cheese,” she said.
It makes sense that food makers have been increasingly turning to bland cheeses with spicy accompaniments.
Instant noodle maker Samyang Food has tasted wild success with instant spicy chicken ramen series added a Carbo version of the product, with added carbonara flavoring, and a Quatro variety, which mixed its signature spicy sauce with creamy cheese powder.
Porridge chain Bonjuk launched bulgogi and mushroom porridge topped with mozzarella cheese, doubling the smooth and creamy texture of the Korean porridge, according to the blurb.
KFC has also upgraded its signature fried chicken bucket last year by launching “Fall in Cheese Chicken,” a limited-time offering of spicy crispy chicken with Gouda and Emmental cheese sauce dips.