There are loads of ingredients that are individually delicious, but should never ever be put together. Scrambled eggs and cereal. Pickles and peanut butter. Noodles and cheese. Unfortunately for an army of aghast, unadventurous internet foodies, the latter is coming under some serious scrutiny. To horrified online shudders, The New York Times have tried to claim that the perfect instant ramen recipe is incomplete without a few squares of American cheese.
While everyone’s favourite plastic patty topping is a welcome addition to many dinners, ramen might be a bridge too far. In Asia’s famously dairy-light cooking culture, subtle spicing and clean flavours don’t naturally lend themselves to mountains of melted cheese. You’ll be hard pressed to find a noodle fan who feels their meal would be improved by a handful of cheddar.
Yet, apparently flying in the face of all logic, Sam Sifton insisted that American cheese is the key to creating awesome ramen every time. Exhibiting their usual restraint, the internet were quick to let him have it with both barrels. One Twitter user cited the recipe as evidence that Donald Trump’s derogatory nickname of “failing New York Times” should be given extra credence. Another added that, “if you...put american (sic) cheese on your ramen noodles, I hate you”. It’s good that we’re all still as open as ever to new ideas.
Despite the protestations of outraged ramen fans, it soon became clear that there was method in the cheese-drenched madness. Sifton later revealed to Insider that the recipe had been provided by legendary Korean street food maestro Roy Choi - famous for creating Korean taco truck, “Kogi”. As an expert in Korean cooking, it’s difficult to argue with Choi’s slightly surprising inclusion.
In Choi’s self-described “Perfect Instant Ramen”recipe, the chef includes a poached egg, chopped spring onions, toasted sesame seeds, as well as the controversial curds. In a video for Tasting Table, Choi stated that the dish was not only, “fun and delicious and easy, but it’s also a bit of a cultural awakening”.
Choi’s not the only one defending dairy on noodles. A closer look at the history of Korean cooking reveals that American cheese has played a bigger role than you might think. Many ramen makers specialise in recipes that feature cheese, and there are a wealth of traditional dishes that have cheesy variants. These include cheese ddukbokki, jjimdak and soondae. Before long, Twitter had rushed to the defence of The New York Times and admonished the early doubters.
American cheese’s long relationship with Korean cooking can be traced back to the 1950s. During the Korean War, American troops needed to have access to a range of long-lasting fatty snacks that could give them extra energy. American cheese ticked every box. Before long, it had spread from the GIs into the local population, and has remained a key ingredient for Koreans and Korean Americans ever since.
If cheesy ramen proves anything, it’s that we should be wary of jumping to conclusions too quickly about strange combinations. On the surface, noodles and cheese might feel like a disaster waiting to happen. In truth, as generations of ramen experts prove, it can be absolutely awesome.