via Anne Swoboda
Cheese is late to the food game in Japan. Something about moldy bacteria-based dairy products never quite caught on here. And so while junk food aficionados in the west excitedly douse every salty, fried food they can think of with the gelatinous substance, the Japanese have been much more content with their mayonnaise.
Fortunately, the cheeseless Japan of the past century experienced something of a change of heart in the last decade or so. Many super markets now carry more than bland single-slice rubber cheeses, finding a shelf for creamy camemberts and pungent blues. The dark, saturated-fat-free era of no-cheese Japan comes to an end, to be replaced by a new age of adventurous dairy-filled bliss.
Part of the appeal of cheese is exploring its limits. That is to say, what can't we put cheese on?
Food manufacturers in Japan are in the midst of this experimental culinary phase. Take cup ramen company Nissin, for example, who spent the last fifteen years adding cheese flavors to their ramen and udon noodles. To celebrate their cheesy success, they've released several new flavors: Cheese Potage, Carbonara Cheese Udon, and UFO Cheese Peperoncino.
As is apparent in the commercial, the addition of cheese to this cup ramen is not a willful choice, it's a non-consensual assault perpetrated by a cheese-headed alien villain.
Japanese noodles, in all their salty meaty goodness, were never something I considered cheesing up. Do they really need to be cheesed? For one, the broth is already so overwhelming to the senses – the rich deep aromas of slowly cooked bone marrow and pork bits wafting in a steamy sauna of skinny noodles, tearing the eyes with every decadent mouthful. Where will the sharp creamy bite of cheese sit in this already divine combination
He forces his cheese into the ramen, without giving any consideration to the woman's appetite or desires. This is the same way I felt when I heard about the cheese ramen. This is not our choice! Is it perhaps simply a marketing algorithm gone wrong – two cells in the random ingredient spreadsheet unfortunately matched? Today we'll find out. Running down to the convenience store, I pick up a cup of Cheese Curry Ramen, the longest-running success in the Nissin cheese line.
I boil a kettle of water and pop off the lid. Atop the dried noodles lie a layer of dehydrated flavorings. Once the water goes in, I deduce which of these is the cheese, as it quickly melts together in a gelatinous blob, sitting on top a muddy slurry of curry flavoring. Avoiding direct eye contact with the strange substance, I hastily mix everything together and wait for the recommended three minutes to prepare my mouth and mind.
Time's up and I'm ready to begin eating. The first bite is easy enough. Curry is an easy pairing with ramen, and for the first few bites it maintains the dominant upper hand in the flavor balance. It's only after several slurps that the cheese-flavoring peaks its head out. From initial chew to final swallow, the curry leads the conversation, and it's only on the post-swallow exhale that the cheese subtly appears, mostly centered in the olfactory system.
The cheese performs a vital role of adding a refreshing, unidentifiably addicting taste, rendering the eater powerless but to continue on through to the end of ramen cup. The cheese is like chasing the dragon, in which one perpetually tries to get just a little more satisfaction with each bite, but all the cheese will do is tease you with its understated pungency.
As I finish the bowl and toss the styrofoam, I feel reassured. Nissin's adventures in cheese flavoring have not been in vein, nor have they been the whimsical experiments of bored marketing executives. No. Cheese does have potential as a topping on our East Asian junk foods. And so while Japan is late to the game in discovering its potential, there is no doubt a promising world lay ahead. I dream of cheese topped maguro sushi and cheese fondu yakiniku. But for now, I'll be happy to settle with Nissin's new Cheese Potage, Carbonara Cheese Udon, and UFO Cheese Peperoncino noodles.