Overindulging in Mukbang

After the release of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, there was a buzz around one rather unexpected scene. There is one scene in the film where a dish called Jjapaguri is prepared. The scene itself is humorous while carrying an underlying satirical tone, but the Korean audience swarmed around this scene to offer a different kind of interpretation. Although this interpretation may have been unexpected for the film’s international audience, it came very naturally for its Korean audience: mukbang.

Jjapaguri is a merging of two types of instant noodles, Jjapaghetti and Neoguri, and while it’s not a concoction that Parasite first introduced, the addition of Hanwoo sirloin was certainly new (Hanwoo is premium Korean beef, and 1 kg of this cut of beef can cost over 100 euro). Parasite’s version of Jjapaguri became one of the most popular types of dishes not only to recreate by Korean YouTubers but also to eat.

Parasite was not the first film to garner such attention from Korean YouTubers. There is an entire online community in which people prepare food and, most importantly, eat it in front of the camera. These kinds of videos are called mukbang, a merging of muk-neun (먹는, eating) and bang-song (방송, show or broadcast). Food seems to have always been a fascination in  all forms of media, from competitive eating to instructional cooking shows to Instagram food porn, but mukbang differs by appealing to the consumption of food. The food itself is secondary. What racks up millions of views on a mukbang video is how the food is prepared or consumed, for example with a new twist on an old favorite like Parasite’s Jjapaguri, by eating multiple portions in one seating, or incorporating ASMR. Granted, some of the most watched videos present unusual food items and are watched mainly for their shock factor, but most videos actually show people eating the most common and accessible dishes in Korea—instant noodles, fried chicken, delivery food from chain restaurants. The mundane aspect of these videos, however, makes mukbang appear more bizarre. Why watch someone eat something that you yourself have probably eaten dozens of times?

There have been attempts to analyze the mukbang phenomenon. The theories offered in different articles are more or less the same: increasing numbers of single-person households leave people desiring someone to eat with, restrictive social norms leading to dieters finding satisfaction in watching other people eat, or that mukbang videos are simply entertaining. There aren’t as many theories of the reason these videos are made, but it may be too obvious: being a popular YouTuber is a lucrative job. But these factors can be attributed to anyone in countries all over the world, so the theories don’t fully satisfy the question of why eating shows are produced and consumed so eagerly especially within Korean society.

In speculations surrounding mukbang, what is often undiscussed is the offline environment that allows the online phenomenon to thrive. Mukbang could have received short-lived attention like a lot of online trends, but its popularity has been sustained for a decade, from its first broadcast on an online Korean streaming platform in 2009. To maintain what perhaps began simply as a trend, not only do the maker and the viewer of a video play major roles, but its entire environment of off- and online communities are equally accountable.

Take Parasite again, for example. Jjapaguri itself was a rather short-lived trend, but the cycle of this trend perhaps discloses one reason as to why mukbang still continues after the dish’s popularity had subsided. In the scene where Jjapaguri is made, Parasite deliberately exaggerates its preparation. Dramatic music; short, quick successive shots; close-ups of the dish illuminated with a spotlight-type of lighting. It’s meant to be funny, exciting, and even suspenseful, and although the film’s intention may have been just that, the theatrical treatment of this scene nevertheless led to Parasite being brought up frequently for weeks in Jjapaguri mukbang videos. It’s difficult to dismiss the hunch that creators of Parasite may have had the smallest hopes that this trend would occur, especially as it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the online mukbang community feeds on other media sources for its next big trend.

What also made Jjapaguri a trend was that it was an accessible dish. The ingredients are sold everywhere, and while Hanwoo is not the most affordable of beef choices, it could be easily substituted for others. The accessibility of food perhaps distinguishes Korea from most other countries, and it may also explain why mukbang sprouted and flourished here. As previously mentioned, the most watched mukbang videos are of very common food items—instant noodles, fried chicken, delivery food. Koreans consume the most number of instant noodles per capita in the world, estimated to about 76 servings per person per year. And these instant noodles can be bought in one of Korea’s over 40,000 convenience stores, making Korea the highest in the world for the ratio of convenience stores to population. As of February 2019, there are about 87,000 fried chicken restaurants in Korea alone, and this number is frequently compared to the number of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide: 36,000. The excessive number of food-related businesses is further pushed by the 24-hour opening times and 24-hour delivery services. In addition to the extremity of Korea’s food availability, Korea also has the fastest mobile Internet speed in the world, partially due to having been (debatably) the first country to launch 5G. Combining the extreme food accessibility and the equally accessible Internet connection in Korea makes the country perhaps the most appropriate for mukbang to bear and thrive.

The last major type of contributor to the mukbang environment is the advertiser or the promoter, like Parasite. Again, the trend that Parasite incited may have been caused by the online mukbang community only, but both intentional and unintentional means of publicity do not go by unnoticed. There has been a similar incident of an unforeseen trend caused by Hwasa, a Korean celebrity, who ate gopchang (beef giblets) on a reality television show. After the broadcast of this episode, gopchang restaurants and butcher shops nationwide saw dramatic increases in sales, some even running completely out of stock. People took to social media with photos, and yes, videos, to join the ever-surging wave of the trend, which in turn acted as unofficial advertisement for the trend to continue.

Not only does the media have such an effect, but the food industry also continuously generates reasons for their consumers to create similar online trends. Convenience stores regularly release brand-exclusive products that often correspond with food trends already going on (which disappear as soon as the trends dwindle). Chain franchises also follow this pattern or release seasonal specials to reel customers back in as soon as the previous trend begins to fade away. The environment is always rich with sources for the next mukbang trend, and users’ constant presence on social media seem to never fail to once again set off the next cycle of mukbang photos and videos.

The cycle of mukbang appears desirable and advantageous to all parties involved. It’s lucrative for businesses, it’s lucrative for the videomakers, and it’s free entertainment for the viewers. Whenever the cycle comes to a lull from lack of new sources and ideas, video makers can revert to safe bets, and doing so is still lucrative and entertaining—mukbang has maintained itself this way for a decade, after all. Mukbang’s dependence on trend cycles and its environment’s eagerness to uphold its existence point out a more general attribute of contemporary Korean  society. One can’t help but feel estranged by mukbang’s isolating format and, at the same time, completely enamored through its undeniable cultural prevalence. Mukbang has become a specific outlet for and a peculiar product of an indiscernible craving in Korean society. Food acts as a social network. We have acknowledged the changes in our relation to food—glorified them, in fact. But the tilt of our attention toward food has perhaps merely been an act of willful blindness to the changes on a side of society that we’d rather not see.

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