American Cheese Is The Secret Ingredient You Didn't Know Ramen Needed

Love the stuff or hate it, it's hard to deny that American cheese was created by innovative dairy pioneers. Bright orange, perfectly melty, and wrapped in individual slices with thin sheets of plastic, it's often looked down upon in the culinary world. When used outside the context of an all-American cheeseburger or child's grilled cheese sandwich, people are up in arms — and perhaps no recipe illustrates this better than the viral ramen topped with American cheese.

While some argue that it's overly processed or too artificial to be classified alongside things like Parmigiano Reggiano or raclette, American cheese is an ingredient equally worthy of your time and works to enhance dishes far beyond those you may imagine. In ramen, American cheese quickly melts and incorporates into the sauce, leaving you with a rich and creamy broth that is both comforting and delicious. Although it may seem like a blasphemous Western riff on a dish with Chinese and Japanese origins and deep roots in many Asian cuisines, the addition of American cheese is actually an authentically Korean innovation that's been loved for decades.

How cheese enhances instant ramen

Rich and creamy broths, like miso and tonkatsu, have long been part of the ramen tradition. But producing such depth of flavor usually requires many hours of slow simmering. When instant ramen hit the scene in 1958, consumers got creative with toppings to make the dish restaurant-quality at home — like peanut butter, egg, and yes, even cheese.

While the flavors produced by adding cheese to instant ramen aren't as complex or refined as the custom broths produced by ramen masters, you probably wouldn't expect that from a packet anyway. What you will get is a whole new level of creamy umami flavor from the free glutamates found in cheese while its fat and carbohydrates bring a more luscious texture than you could get from the seasoning packet alone. Dairy also contains a protein called casein, which helps to soothe the burn of spicy food, so cheese softens the sting of hotter ramen varieties without changing the flavor too drastically.

To experience this combination for yourself, simply prepare a pack of instant ramen according to the instructions on the back, then add one or two slices of American cheese and stir to combine. To take this dish to the next level, add a small pad of butter and a poached egg. You may think that cheesiness wouldn't work well in ramen, but the combination is so popular that many brands have started selling cheese-flavored ramen to make it even more accessible to consumers.

The history of American cheese in Korean cuisine

By this point, you may be asking: How did American cheese become such a prevalent ingredient in Korean cuisine in the first place? While it certainly didn't originate there, it's been a part of the culinary landscape since American soldiers arrived with a variety of inexpensive, highly preserved, calorically dense goods — like Spam, chocolate, hot dogs, and American cheese — to sustain themselves, and shared them with Koreans. These inexpensive, highly processed goods became important parts of the local cuisine, especially in the decades after the war when much of the country experienced unemployment and poverty -– choosing cheap, high-calorie foods kept people alive.

Although cheese is rare in most East Asian countries and lactose intolerance in this population is comparatively high (per MedlinePlus), Korean cuisine is an exception to the rule. Not only is cheese a favorite topping for ramyeon, but it's also found in dakgalbi, tteokpokki, kimbap, and budae jjigae. Local producers creating mild cheese varieties that suited Korean palettes and complimented existing dishes has only increased consumption. In 2023, cheese sales in Korea exceeded $300 million — about a 5% increase from the previous year (via ANN).