Korea is not a nation known for it’s consumption of dairy, although people here are eating a lot more of it in recent years. These days, I only have to travel about 40 minutes on the subway to buy some actual cheddar cheese, imported from Australia.
There’s still a racially-based prejudice that Koreans have, expressed in the commonly-known, accepted-wisdom phrase (transcribed into roman characters for your delectation) used to describe the smell of euro-descended people : buttah nemseh. The ‘buttah’ part of this phrase means, as you might expect, ‘butter’. ‘Nemseh’ means ‘smells of’, or ‘stinks like’. The idea is that westerners stink of butter, and the assumption is that this is because we (the generalized monkey mass of ‘we’) eat so much dairy. Whether the difference in odor one experiences in a crowd of Koreans as opposed to westerners (although it must be noted that a diet heavy in kimchi creates its own set of quite pungent scents : early morning elevator rides can be trying) is due to diet, or the oft-repeated claim that there are enzymatic differences in the sweat of those of Asian descent, I have no idea, and am unqualified to guess.
This butter thing would apparently be the norm in Japan as well. Fujiko, a Japanese porn starlet, is quoted in this article at NYPress.com (of all places, and I have no idea why I remembered it, but the piece is well worth reading) in which Jonathan Ames is invited to be a porn director-for-a-day :

I can smell the difference between black, Caucasian, Asian.”
“What do they smell like?” I ask.
“White like butter. Japanese–soy sauce. Korean–kimchi. Chinese–miso. Black like baby powder. I smell under the balls.”

Fujiko and her colleagues, I would think, are perhaps uniquely qualified to evaluate the differences in scent between men, at least, of different nations. Of necessity, she obviously gets more up close and personal than, say, your average secretary or computer programmer might, and has a larger sample group from which to draw her comparisons.
Maybe there is something to the phrase, and the preconception. I have never really imagined myself smelling ‘buttery’, though. My wife claims that I am veritable chameleon of scent, which is perhaps mildly reassuring.
What is true, and may have something to do with the attitude towards dairy products here, is that milk in Korea stinks! No, seriously – every morning when I make coffee (which is the only time I use milk), I take a sniff of the milk carton, out of sheer habit, and I am struck once again (as I was just before I sat down to type this) how bad that stuff smells, more than in any of the other couple of dozen countries in which I’ve drunk it.
At the risk of sounding like a bad standup comic, what’s up with that?


Join the conversation! 10 Comments

  1. Milk always smells as if it’s on the verge of souring.
    To me milk reminds me of the cartons of lukewarm mild we used to get without graham crackers in gradeschool. I can’t stand drinking the stuff now and only use it for cooking and sometimes in coffee.
    Stink of butter. That’s fascinting!

  2. Let’s try that again — reminds me of the lukewarm “milk” we used to get “with” our graham crackers.

  3. Irish like Guinness. Italian like Marinara. German like sauerkraut. Smell under balls.

  4. Like butter… I never heard of that. Milk in Korea does indeed stink. I’ve gotten sick plenty of times drinking that stuff. I don’t like being a weeny, but I usually have to buy that imported Denmark milk when I’m there.

  5. I like to think that I Smell Like Teen Spirit, but I think that time might be long past…
    I’m surprised you haven’t heard the phrase, Jo! All of the Korean folks I’ve asked about it here have recognized it…

  6. Similar comments from Central Americans. One I lived with kept pointing out all the smells I was overlooking. Thanks to that persistent and somewhat unwelcome training, my natural sniffer is now calibrated at roughly the same odor levels as the device the gas company uses to check for leaks on your stove. Gas company people never appreciate this, tell me I’m abnormally sensitive; but it’s saved folks from problems in a couple old buildings where I was visiting.

  7. heavy use of cocoa-butter by American GI’s.

  8. American GI’s use of cocoa-butter body soap, may be the cause of the above mentioned opinion of ‘buttah nemseh’.

  9. Milk in Japan also stinks bad. I can’t even enjoy my Ovaltine!

  10. I think the milk may stink because Korean have a habit of keeping it (and eggs and fish and….) out of the fridge for as long as possible (usually in an uncovered truck or on the side of the road) in a game of cuisine chicken.

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