The Korea Herald


How cheese found its place on Korean tables

With a craving for ultra-spicy foods, Koreans incorporate mild, less pungent cheeses into regular diet, mostly as toppings

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : March 12, 2024 - 17:55

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Cheese tteokbokki (123rf) Cheese tteokbokki (123rf)

Kim Min-ju, 38, confesses her tolerance for spicy foods is relatively low by Korean standards. But there’s a way to overcome it and still indulge in Korea’s wide array of spicy dishes -- adding cheese.

This approach not only makes the dishes more enjoyable, but also creates a perfect balance of creamy richness and heat, she said: "It helps to temper the spiciness without significantly altering the dish's original flavor."

Last year, she and her 8-year-old son even tried Buldak noodles -- infamous for their fiery kick, with the help of 10 slices of cheddar cheese.

"The cheddar cheese actually paired quite well with the spicy noodles," she said, adding that she now stocks up on cheese for her child’s snack as well as a topping for a variety of dishes, including tteobbokki and even kimchi jjigae (stew).

People like Kim are fueling the growth of the cheese market in Korea, a sector that was once viewed as far removed from the traditional Korean diet.

In 2023, cheese sales reached 406.4 billion won ($304.24 million), marking a 5.3 percent increase from 2022's 386 billion won, according to the Food Information Statistics System.

Seoul Dairy Cooperative, which has the largest share -- 27 percent -- of the Korean cheese market, posted a record 109.5 billion won in cheese sales last year, up 12.7 percent compared to the previous year.

Cheese products on display at a discount store chain in Seoul in January (Newsis) Cheese products on display at a discount store chain in Seoul in January (Newsis)

Mass-produced, pre-sliced

Cheese is commonly perceived as smelly, but to many Koreans, this perception may be contested.

This is because the cheese they are accustomed to is the less pungent, processed cheese, presliced and packaged between sheets of clear plastic for convenience in cooking and preserving.

Widely known as the American cheese, these mass-produced, pre-sliced cheeses were first introduced in earnest in 1987, when local companies such as Seoul Dairy and Haitai Confectionery & Food started selling their first such products.

According to a Seoul Dairy official, "The role of sliced cheese, tailored to the taste of domestic consumers, has played a crucial part in making cheese popular in Korea."

The recent surge in cheese consumption, however, can be attributed to Koreans’ discovery of cheese as an enriching complement to their everyday dishes.

From spicy baby back ribs and dakgalbi (grilled chicken) to ramyeon, a wide range of dishes are now available with melted cheese on top, adding a new dimension of flavor and texture.

The notable rise in mozzarella's popularity, in particular, attests to this, says Moon Jung-hoon, a professor at Food Biz Lab at Seoul National University.

"This consumption trend primarily shows how Koreans mostly use cheese as a topping for dishes like pizza, rather than consuming it on its own,” he said.

The increase in cheese consumption is also linked to an underlying, broader food trend among Koreans, food experts say, which is their growing craving in recent years for extremely spicy foods.

Professor Lee Hye-ran, who specializes in food and nutrition at Baewha Women's University, explains that proteins in cheese, referred to as casein, effectively mitigate the spiciness of food. This occurs through the protein's interaction with capsaicin.

As the preference for cheese consumed with spicy food continued to grow, Korean food giant Samyang launched cheese-flavored Buldak ramyeon in 2021.

Tourists touch a 50-kilogram giant cheese wheel exhibited at the ninth Imsil N Cheese Festival held in 2023 (Imsil-gun) Tourists touch a 50-kilogram giant cheese wheel exhibited at the ninth Imsil N Cheese Festival held in 2023 (Imsil-gun)

Stinky cheese's potential

According to the 2021 data from the Food Information Statistics System, natural, or unprocessed, cheese constitutes only 27 percent of the Korean market.

Professor Moon noted that among natural cheeses, fermented varieties known for their distinctive scents, such as cheddar, brie and blue cheeses, have not seen significant growth in Korea so far.

"If we see an increase in the popularity of fermented cheeses, it likely reflects the growing consumption of wine drinking and dried meat charcuterie platters," Moon explained.

Influenced by COVID-19, the shift that Moon described seems to be taking place in Korea more and more.

During the pandemic, there was a notable surge in the culture of at-home wine consumption, resulting in explosive growth in the Korean wine market.

According to Euromonitor, the Korean wine market reached 2.8 trillion won in 2022, marking a 51 percent increase from 1.8 trillion won in 2019.

This rise in wine consumption has also sparked increased interest in cheese, according to the Food Information Statistics System.

Seoul Dairy reported that the sales growth rate of cheese products, which was under 5 percent during the initial period of the COVID-19 pandemic from 2019 to 2021, has increased to around 15 percent from 2021 to 2023.

Restaurants specializing in cheese have also become more popular in recent years as well.

Lee You-jung, 32, who recently dined at the specialty restaurant Cheeseflo in Hannam-dong, Seoul, shared how the experience broadened her appreciation for natural cheese.

She particularly liked the restaurant's frozen goat cheese and pear dish, which she had with wine.

"It was unlike any cheese I've tried before, and the restaurant also offers a variety of unique cheeses that I can purchase and bring home," Lee said.

The restaurant's exclusive cheese selection includes Brie de Hannam and Itaewon Blue.

Imsil-gun, the largest cheese-producing region in South Korea, is also active in addressing the rising demand in the niche natural cheese market.

The village is also home to Korea Cheese Science High School, which adopted its current name in 2014 with the objective of educating and training future generations in the fields of cheese-making and culinary arts.

The legacy of natural cheese-making in the region traces back to 1966 when Belgian Roman Catholic priest Father Didier t’Serstevens initiated cheese production using milk from his two goats, aiming to stimulate the local economy.