How South Korea’s Popular Food Culture Reflects Social Isolation

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How South Korea’s Popular Food Culture Reflects Social Isolation

Mukbang and Honbap, the two of the most significant dining trends in South Korea right now are a result of a society that is tentaively embracing the new found idea of solitude, writes Alessandra Bonanomi

South Korea is a dynamic country where everything changes fast and where trends shift quite often. Among the tendencies, mukbang is one of the most famous. Coming from the Korean words for “eating” and “broadcast”, it indicates people who live stream themselves eating large quantities of food. These mukbang broadcast journalists, also known as BJs (broadcasting jockeys), get paid through donations by ordinary viewers who send them money in the form of “star balloons”, a virtual currency that can be bought and sold with regular fiat cash. Moreover, people usually send to BJs food to try: mandu (boiled or fried dumplings), jajangmyeon (Korean-Chinese black noodles), fried chicken, ramyeon (instant noodles),and many more.

Some of the mukbang broadcast journalists have become celebrities and may earn around $10,000 per month. The success of this phenomenon is probably linked to loneliness. In fact, according to Korea Herald, 28 percent of Koreans said they have no meaningful social support network at all, not a single person they can speak to or rely on in times of crisis. This rate was the highest among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Thus, mukbang can be a way to not be lonely while eating.

The phenomenon is broadcast on AfreecaTV, a video streaming service. The platform also allows the interaction between mukbang broadcast journalists and viewers who can write comment or questions during the live stream. The fact that South Korea has the world’s fastest internet is an important reason behind the success of this trend. In fact, viewers can enjoy the performances almost everywhere, thanks to the fast connections.

However, a new trend is taking place: eating alone in restaurants. Known as honbap, the current phenomenon describes a turning point for Korean culture, which is famous for being a culture based on sharing, especially food.

In a recent study, the Korea Health Promotion Foundation found that a large number of working Koreans between the ages of 30-59 ate alone because they wanted to save time or didn’t have anyone to eat with.Among the surveyed Koreans in their 30s, 38.7 percent of them said they eat alone because they do not have company during meal times. Meanwhile, 21.5 percent said they just did not have enough time to eat with someone else. Another 16.1 percent said they ate alone to save time.

This has also grown into the phenomenon of drinking alone or honsul, as it is popularly known. Keeping up with this growing trend, specific restaurants that cater to single diners have cropped up all over Seoul. It is hard to know if this culture of loneliness will stand for long, but it is important to note that a lot of this growing social isolation is self-inflicted. In a country where the culture of family, sharing and social obligation has been the norm, the idea of doing things alone is an act of rebellion in itself and for now, loneliness seems to be a small price to pay for it.


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