When I landed in Seoul after a 14-hour flight, I was ravenous and maladjusted to sunlight (nothing new). My cousin Eunbi picked me up from Incheon International Airport and took me to lunch; she wanted to show me her "taste of Korea." So I found it ironic that she chose to take me to a local pizza joint.
Koreans have a very strange but wonderful relationship to pizza. In the last five to ten years alone, what with the influx of Americans, Canadians, and international students moving to Seoul, Korea has seen too an influx of what we here in the States—or at least some of us—would call Pizza with a capital P.
What is “Pizza with a capital P,” you ask? For me, it's pizza that has an identifiable style, both in look and in taste, that can be pinned to a region of origin. When I visited Korea as a kid, the options were slim, limited to American chains like Papa John's, Domino's, and Pizza Hut—pleasurable in their own way, but nothing compared to today's selection. Pizza has come a long way in Seoul, now catering to the international palates of those who moved to Korea years ago and found themselves looking for the styles they grew up with back home: Neapolitan, Chicago-style, and New York–style, among others.
The pizza Eunbi and I ate, however, was something I’d call quintessentially Korean, born and bred...ish: It had corn on it (Koreans love their cheesy corn, aka corn cheese); a masochistic drizzle of ranch dressing (I know, bear with me); and an overall mild, sweet taste that, in its gentleness, became more and more addictive as I ate it.
A couple of these things might sound strange to the American ear: Corn and ranch? Sweet pizza? But later, as I would eat out more and more with my cousins, and see corn and ranch everywhere, I'd learn just how much they love these particular flavors together and why.
Let's start with the corn. Popular blogger couple Eat Your Kimchi laments the ubiquity of corn in Korean takeout pizza: “...corn will come hidden in every orifice of your pizza when it was never listed in the ingredients to begin with. One of our favorite phrases in Korean is actually, 'please, no corn.'” But actually, corn can work surprisingly well as a pizza topping. When you're swimming in a sea of salty-savory tomato and cheese, I find that it's nice to have bites of sweetness to offset everything else. And anyway, the Korean palate tends to lean sweet. As James Park writes about the flavor trend dan-jjan (literally "sweet-salty"), "It's almost impossible to talk about Korean cuisine without talking about salt and sugar."
As for the ranch dressing (which I've seen used both as a dipping sauce for the pizza, as well as a sauce-sauce under the cheese, and even as a topping drizzled all over), I'd say it stems from Koreans and their general aversion to overly rich, salty foods. (My mom, for instance, hates marinara sauce and prefers the softer taste of a good white pizza or a chicken Alfredo.) The creamy ranch dressing, in this way, offers some cool relief from anything overly strong or acidic that might dwell underneath. Yet, somehow, especially when paired with sweet corn and a mild cheese like mozzarella, the ranch can also pick everything up. It's like a good finishing salt: It helps you taste the nuances of each part (the corn, the cheese, the bread) that much more.
Because it’s summer, I love having friends over and grilling individual-sized corn and ranch pizzas for everyone. Corn, when grilled like this, gets chewy and inexplicably sweeter. Basil adds a floral note. But the real clincher is, of course, the bottle of ranch dressing (especially Hidden "Vale/Dell/Glen/Geologic Window") that I like to keep in a squeeze bottle by the grill, as if it's some kind of special homemade sauce (which by all means you can and should make, if you'd like).
If you’ve never grilled pizza before, it’s actually quite easy:
How to Grill Pizza
- Heat a grill over medium-high heat.
- Roll out each ball of pizza dough into about 8-inch rounds. (I like to do this with my hands, holding the dough by the edges and letting it hang down, i.e. letting gravity do the work, rotating and stretching until thin all the way around.)
- For each round, brush both sides lightly with olive oil and par-cook on the grill, about 60 seconds per side.
- Off the grill, top with (in this order): sauce, cheese, and toppings. Grill again, covered, until the cheese is melted and the dough is cooked through. Garnish with fresh herbs like basil and, if you're a believer, drizzle with ranch.
- 2 pounds store-bought pizza dough, divided into 4 balls
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 tablespoons bottled ranch dressing, especially Hidden Valley, plus more for drizzling at the end
- 8 ounces shredded mozzarella
- 2 cobs fresh corn, kernels cut off
- 1 handful fresh basil leaves, torn with your hands
- 1 handful ricotta salata or crumbled feta, optional
This Is Good, Too
Have you ever had corn or ranch on your pizza? Tell us about it in the comments below.