Late night cravings, post-night out meals, and the feral need to fill yourself with as much calorically dense food as possible only leads to one thing: Cheese. It’s at the center of everything greasy. Cheese fries, a Big Mac, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, anything that constitutes as string pull galore is certified late-night meal jackpot. That list doesn’t include Asian food, perhaps because it’s a little more laborious to take out the wok and fry up a beef cheung fun – although if you’re experienced, this meal takes seconds. Perhaps, too, there’s a stereotype that most Asian food has an aversion to cheese. Yet you’ll find stringy, processed all-American mozzarella in just about every trendy rendition of Korean classics. Cheesy tteokbokki, Budae Jjigae, Dalkgalbi, cheesy instant ramen noodles, and the list goes on. Why cheese? And why Korea?
We tend to see food as this steady pillar in our lives, unchanged and unaffected by our geopolitical surroundings. Food is a nostalgic memory, a familiarity we can easily recall throughout lifetimes. Traditions and recipes are passed down from generation to generation. In fact, we rarely see cultural dishes as a reflection of society. But society and history does have a strong hand in creating new dynamics and cuisines. As banal as cheese is to the everyday gustatory experience, cheese in Korean food actually has a deeper, and darker, history tied to it.
On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Two days later, the United States entered the Korean War supporting the Republic of Korea (South Korea). This war is considered the “forgotten war,” among many Americans. How much do you know about the Korean War? Despite more than 40,000 American soldiers, one million South Koreans, 200,000 North Koreans, and 800,000 Chinese soldiers killed, the Korean War has left little mark on the collective historical memory of many Americans.
During the war, US military camps were littered all across South Korea. Due to war rations and devastations, poor villages living near US base camps could smuggle American military rations to make stew, or anything they can conjure up. Budae-Jjigae – literally army-base stew – was born out of this war-time food scarcity, containing spam, hot dogs, Korean vegetables, and other vegetables with spicy seasoning. This war-time meal has evolved since its dark origins, through the addition of traditional Korean ingredients like rice cakes, gojuchang, and an assortment of noodles. Oh, of course you can enjoy your Budae-Jjigae with slices of mozzarella cheese.
From a desperate need of survival, this dish has been revived into Korea’s most well-loved comfort meal. Turning what was a painful memory, and still a vivid memory to so many Koreans today, into a nationally celebrated dish that has spread internationally thanks to the rise of Korean k-pop and drama media. With the evolution of the dish, Budae-Jjihae is, rightly, a reflection of the evolution of South Korea: from surviving a disastrous and bloody war marked by decades of separation and political turmoil still felt today, to a society that celebrates its roots and culture and looks ahead at its bright future.
This isn’t all to say cheese is a needed or even celebrated addition to Korean cuisine. Its mere presence is a testament to the American military imperialism of that time, that US military influence is still deeply ingrained in every facet of post-colonial societies after WWII. There are still 15 US military bases stationed in South Korea. In fact, the Korean War was never technically solved, it’s been in a political standstill, in armistice, for nearly 70 years.
Food can be marked by nostalgia, remembrance, of happier and simpler times as the gustatory literature often pronounces. But there are many Budae-Jjiigae’s out there, of food combinations that don’t make quite sense to its cultural integrity, that reveal a sinister history buried in our cultural lexicon.
Cover photo courtesy of Mai Cookbook