Korean voyeur food: What in the world is Mukbang?

Hungry? Well you’re not alone! While it’s now possible to make a career out of playing video games for the enjoyment of others on Youtube, South Korea has taken a different route, instead making minor celebrities out of people who eat copious amounts of food via livestream. The concept, known as Mukbang (It roughly translates to eating broadcasts, nice and simple yeah?), has been gaining steam over the last few years and while the success hasn’t penetrated the western market like their pop music has, Mukbang has gained some notoriety through the magical world that is the internet. You may have heard of it before, but how much do you really know?

How it works is basically as it appears on the cover. With set-ups ranging from simple webcams to something better resembling a recording studio with multiple cameras, microphones and computers, the content maker films him or herself eating what is often family sized portions of food and interacting with the people watching them live, who communicate to them through a chat system. If they like what they see, they send them balloons, which act as a virtual currency that can be exchange for real money. One Balloon equates to 10 US cents, and while that’s small change it adds up. And if you’re good, it adds up quick. One managed to make $18 000 in just five minutes through these balloon donations. Another example is Diva (she’s the one in the picture), who was earning a regular $9 000 a month, enough for her to quit her full time job to instead eat for a living. The content creators are known as Broadcast Jockeys, which is affectionately shortened over there to BJ’s (this is the space where I wait and let you make the many possible jokes that come from that…go on, I can wait).

…Done?…

It’s a competitive market as you could imagine, and the one company cashing out in the centre of it all is Afreeca TV (think Twitch.tv), who manage the virtual currency and broadcasting side of things. Anyone with a webcam and an empty stomach can try their hand at it, and so it is not uncommon to see gimmicks or costumes involved in an attempt to stand out. Most eat take-out, though some use the platform to show off their culinary skills, not only eating but cooking the food on camera, potentially leading into a career in the industry. It’s also loud. While it is considered rude in our culture to be a ‘loud eater’ it is more acceptable in Korea, as eating with their mouth open is considered natural. This is often amplified in the videos as a sign that the food is tasty.

All sounds pretty weird right? Well in reality it is not all that different to the growth in Western online content creation. The western equivalent right now is the Let’s Play, which as mentioned earlier is where a person or group or people play through a video game, providing their own commentary over the top of the action. And people have made careers out of simply Vlogging, talking to the camera about their lives and the world around them. The internet has now opened up niche audiences of all kinds, and people are making content to fill those gaps.

What’s more, Mukbang as a concept carries stronger cultural ties than video games in the west. Eating is a very important aspect of Korean family culture. Eating together is simply what you do, but modern life is changing the world around them. Now, it is not unusual for people to live out on their own in tiny apartments, cutting them off from the traditional family setup and the values that come with eating together. For them, there is a certain kind of comfort to be found sitting down to a meal and eating with another person, even if that person is doing so via camera. Others simply find watching the massive quantities of food being consumed as a replacement for eating it themselves. Instead of being inspired to eat (like I would be) they find it satisfying those urges.

There are strong communities that surround the more popular Broadcast Jockeys (I’m not making a habit of shortening it). Like any celebrity they develop fans and fan communities, and those connections can be quite strong, since they are essentially sitting down and sharing a meal with them. Add to that the interaction that comes through the live chat while they eat, and it is easy for fans to feel connected to the creator’s life. Again, this is not so different from Vloggers or Let’s Plays, whose fans react and respond to videos on a daily basis. And unfortunately also like any celebrity (especially one which deals in loneliness to an extent), there are weirder sides. Broadcast Jockey Hanna, who has over 300 000 subscribers and has accumulated millions of views across her videos, has had to move house because of people trying to hunt down where she lived.

As you would also imagine when you see the sizes of their meals, one of the tougher sides effects to the Mukbang is weight gain. This is a particular problem for Broadcast Jockey’s who sell their channel on their looks, and as you could imagine in such an industry a pretty face doesn’t hurt the view count. As a result, many keep vigorous exercise regimes to burn off all of that excess food they consume, all so they can do it again.

At the end of the day, it is not all that different from watching a cooking show on television like My Kitchen Rules. You don’t necessarily watch in order to learn how to cook certain dishes, but you watch because it is entertaining and ties into the greater concept of food culture. Mukbang takes elements from these traditional programs and adapts it to a culture that benefits the niche genres and encourages a greater sense of connection and interactivity. It is a personal experience, shared among thousands, filling gaps in a persons life or simply serving as entertainment. And traditional media has borrowed from new media in return. My Kitchen Rules is filled to the brim with ‘fan interaction’ by broadcasting tweets in real time alongside the programming. But here the celebrity responds, and makes you feel welcomed into the community and a part of a grander family.

In spite of all of this, it is hard to picture Mukbang translating to a western audience, and instead it serves as an example of the cultural divide between east and west. It is perfectly natural, and we see proof of that even between Australia and America when it comes to comedy. A show like Kath and Kim became a cultural icon here yet floundered across the ocean because the base concept was so culturally ingrained in what it means to be Australian. It can speak to our culture but it just seems weird to another. Mukbang speaks to Korean cultural sensibilities, notably family, tradition and togetherness. Sure, many families might sit down over dinner, or come together as one over the holidays, but it is not so ingrained into our society like it is over there.

Some critics also seem to get lost in the cultural translation, but while there is likely a segment out there who watch it as a kind of sexual fetish, I truly believe there is more to Mukbang than that. It might seem sad that people are filling their loneliness with hour long streams of people eating, but everybody has their way of dealing with the problems in their lives. If you have grown up becoming accustomed to eating with people, and then that is suddenly taken away from you, then finding a way to fill that gap is simply logical. I can relate in my own way. When I broke my wrist and was unable to play video games for six weeks, I found myself watching a lot more Let’s Plays. It filled a gap and also provided entertainment.

For what it’s worth I tried sitting through one of Diva’s Mukbangs but honestly I couldn’t sit through the entire broadcast. It might be the language barrier (the only Korean I know is Ah-Nee-Yoh, which means no, because of a viral video) but it wasn’t something I could watch through, though I sat through more than I thought I would. But plenty can, and do. It might seem like one of those ‘too good to be true’ ways of making money, Mukbang is out there, and lots of Koreans are watching BJs online everyday…

…Look I held out as long as I could (phrasing) on the jokes…

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