Vegans and lactose intolerants excluded, if there’s one thing Americans can agree on, it’s that cheese makes pretty much anything taste better. Asia, on the other hand, has had a strained – or often non-existent – relationship with cheese. Over 90% of East Asian adults are lactose intolerant, because their diets have never really included much dairy, and their bodies have not exercised the lactase enzyme that breaks down lactose. But Koreans have been consuming cheese in Western dishes – as well as fusing it into their more local fare – with increasing regularity.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the United States has increased their cheese (which has a lower lactose content than milk) exports to South Korea by approximately 20% from 2011, with a significant spike in the year 2015, when the export nearly doubled year over year. Since then, a simple add-on of mozzarella cheese has turned into a revolution of sorts, favored by backpackers, students, and those who need to cut some of the spice from fiery side dishes.
Spicy noodles, seafood pancakes, and breakfast salads have all gotten the cheesy treatment, but here are some of the most common mashups you’ll find if you visit Korea:
Cheese Back Ribs
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Sandwiches, pasta, eggs: Americans put cheese on just about everything. One classic cuisine you won’t find with cheese stateside? American Barbecue. But that hasn’t stopped Korea from creating the kind of frankenfood even Instagram-obsessed U.S. restaurants wouldn’t dare dream up: BBQ ribs smothered in corn and either shredded cheese or cheese sauce.
With a distinctly artificial texture that resembles nacho cheese you’ll only find at movie theaters and sporting events – but with a taste that more closely resembles fondue cheese – this gooey cheese cradles the slow-cooked meat in an odd pairing that has been gaining a cult following through the country.
Where to eat it: James Cheese Back Ribs – 7-6 Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul 04537, South Korea
Octopus and Fondue
Swine and dairy not your thing? In an equally unorthodox combo, you can cover your cephalopods in cheese instead. One new fad hitting this seafood-loving country is short arm octopus cooked in a stew with various other ingredients – like chicken and rice cakes – and served with a hot vat of melted cheese that functions as a fondue. To take it one step further, the dish sometimes comes with an additional creamy side sauce that resembles Alfredo. Oh-jju Hongdae in Seoul has its own makegeolli (a Korean alcoholic beverage) cream sauce, and occasionally a shot of soju or makegeolli to wash it all down.
Where to eat it: Oh-jju Hongdae – 364-2 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Cream Cheese Cubes
Massive cubes of cream cheese are showing up with increasing regularity in the topping case for fro-yo, ice cream, and bingsu (a shaved ice dessert) shops in and around Seoul. The dense cream cheese almost melts into icy dairy underneath, which then comes together in a sort of emulsion of cheesy, milky textures that makes the pairing stand out among Korea’s famous desserts.
Where to eat it: Sulbing Busan Main – 54-2, Gwangbok-ro, Jung-gu, Busan 48953, South Korea
Pig’s Feet with Fondue
Jokbal – a famous Korean dish of pig’s feet with soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, garlic, and a good dose of collagen – can now be served with a hot vat of bubbling fondue alongside the dish. Some restaurants are even taking things to the next level by offering cheese pizza as a side dish to jokbal. The fondue and (very) garlicky pig’s feet smash your taste buds in a harmonious combination of salt and cream birthed out of complex ingredients and a simple concept.
Where to eat it: Jokbal Salon – 1101-8, Gwandongdong, Gimhaesi, Gyeongsangnamdo, South Korea
Cheese-Topped Army Stew
Bud jjigae, nicknamed army stew by Americans and Koreans alike, is a soup made out of scraps from Western and Eastern food available to soldiers during the Korean war. The high calorie content fueled soldiers through long days and cold nights, and the open concept of the dish allowed them to add variety to their often repetitive meals. The dish eaten in Korea now is almost exactly like the original installation, which always includes spam, hamburger meat, macaroni and instant ramen. The soup varies in its ingredients, sometimes adding rice cakes, kimchi, rice noodles, beans, ham slices, hot dogs, and, a recent addition, a healthy portion of American cheese slices. Considering this dish was born of Western influence, cheese seems like the logical next evolution.
Where to eat it: Mukshidonna Myeongdong – 12, Myeongdong 3-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul 04534, South Korea