Cutting down on the spice, South Korea cheese imports soar as trade deals open door

Tue Nov 10, 2015 4:34pm EST
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By Meeyoung Cho and Rebecca Jang

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Koreans, who traditionally eat most meals with a generous dollop of the fiery local side dish kimchi, are gaining a growing taste for another imported fermented food: cheese.

While Japan is by far the biggest consumer of cheese in Asia, neighboring South Korea is one of the fastest-growing markets, and top suppliers such as the United States and New Zealand hope to sell even more as free trade deals cut tariffs.

Cheese demand has been helped by increased exposure to western dishes such as pizza, but South Koreans also often incorporate it into local dishes ranging from noodle soup to kimchi stir-fried rice.

"I try to sprinkle cheese even on Korean food," said Lee Mi-ji, a 31-year-old office worker, who initially started eating cheese with wine.

Cheese consumption has soared by a third in the last five years and annual imports are now worth nearly $500 million.

"People are familiar with fermented food such as kimchi, soybean and chilly paste. Cheese is also fermented. So I think they are getting used to it fast," said Hwang Keum-taek, a food and nutrition professor at Seoul National University.

As in other parts of Asia, dairy products have been less popular partly due to many South Koreans having difficulty digesting lactose, the sugar found in milk. But cheese is tolerated better as it contains less lactose.

"Cheese reduces the spicy taste in lots of Korean food. Students often put string cheese in ramen," said Se-jun Kim, a spokesman at Korea's Maeil Dairies Co Ltd, referring to a type of mozzarella added to noodle soups.   Continued...

An employee rolls up a pork rib with cheeses as patrons look on, at a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji