What began as a South Korean trend of polishing off gargantuan portions of food on camera, has now spread across continents, presenting viewers with gastronomic orgasms.
The era of food blogs or vlogs and Instagramming food is over. Enter mukbang or food porn. The term mukbang is a portmanteau of the Korean words for ‘eating’ and ‘broadcast’. A trend that began in South Korea during the 2010s, it shows people eating food in enormous quantities either live or through short videos posted on social media.
Mukbang began as live shows in Korea where the host would eat large quantities of popular foods in front of the camera. Like most SouthEast Asians, South Koreans too give a lot of importance to the tradition of eating together from the same table, sharing the same dishes as well. With the generational changes in the social environment, eating together gradually became impossible which culminated in the mukbang videos, which evoke memories of communal eating.
Apart from the visual feast, the amplified slurping and crunching sounds are an integral part of mukbang videos. The choice of food ranges from pork and duck to chicken, aerated drinks and sweet desserts all in fiery reds and burning oranges, through which viewers can indulge in ‘second-hand eating’ without worrying about gaining weight. Mukbang videos are said to ease social isolation in viewers while the majority of the hosts consider it a venue for obtaining a ‘meal mate’ or a virtual eating companion who assists in reducing stress. Scientific studies suggest that viewers watch mukbang as an escape from reality when they are incapable of accessing, or denied such a wide variety of food in reality, deriving vicarious pleasure and satisfaction while doing so.
Challenging norms of femininity
The mukbang trend has openly challenged existing South East Asian aesthetic standards and social norms tremendously. Korea is a land of plastic surgeries and fad diets with stringent norms on women’s health and beauty standards. Korean women are constantly under the radar on how much they eat and what they eat and female hunger has always been associated with discipline. The mukbang videos on the other hand have openly questioned the ‘ideal’ quantity and quality of food for people, especially women, resulting in a kind of physical and psychological release.
At the same time, mukbang videos are accused of fetishising women eating, which some viewers find a voyeuristic pleasure in watching. Mukbang enables such viewers to gaze at these women while they are in a somewhat vulnerable situation while eating. The concept of women eating and openly displaying their appetite and hunger has also triggered carnal desires in such viewers.
Mukbang videos can be with or without a storyline and most mukbangers excessively valorize the taste. The food would also be high in calories, spicy and oily food but the hosts finish huge quantities in a short time. The highlighted food colours and the phantasmagoria of exaggerated gustatory, auditory and visual pleasures evoke an inhuman desire for food in viewers. To a viewer, it might also appear that the hosts are eating a lot and yet staying slim triggering a desire to be the same. Many such viewers have ended up with transgressive eating behaviour, over-eating, obesity, eating disorders and ultimately a disruption of the food and hunger balance.
Mukbang in the West
As the mukbang fever taking over Instagram, the trend turned international and found new variants. The hogging was replaced by ‘cooking and eating in front of the camera. Mukbang in the West became something like a challenge where one person participates in an eating contest where they are supposed to finish food for two people in a stipulated time. However, the majority of such videos are produced and presented by Asians. The dishes are mostly watery noodles with tangy and colourful sauces, with plenty of splashing and hissing sounds. An old acquaintance of mine once casually remarked that the migration of South-East Asians to the West, especially to the United States, has drained the entire Atlantic of its marine biosphere. Mukbang videos are proof, one gets to know the infinite variety of foods included in a simple Korean or Vietnamese noodle bowl.
Spicy biriyanis, mutton koftas and chicken curries are an integral part of an Indian mukbang video. The trend reached India too with regional and popular cuisines overpowering viewers with their colour and richness. While a Korean video platter had little veggies, Indian mukbangs had a lot more of them, some being fully vegetarian. Attired in traditional costumes, Indian women too actively participate in this trend. Local Indian street food videos have also been a huge hit on YouTube.
Well, regardless of its erotic, escapist or entertainment components, food haul videos have been found to result in ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) in viewers. And mukbang seems to ease social alienation and induce a sense of companionship as well.