Mukbang is what happens when the worlds of food obsession and social media addiction collide.

Michael Y. Park
February 18, 2020
Advertisement

Mukbang. The very name sounds like something that crawled up from the nether regions of the internet's seamier chatrooms and illicit video-download sites. But it's really just live webcasts in which someone eats while potentially millions of followers watch and pepper him or her with messages (and donations). In other words, think of it as the culmination of a world in which social media dominates our thoughts and competitive eating gets its own official league.

d3sign; Getty Images

But first, let's demystify the name: "Mukbang" is merely Korean shorthand for the word for "eating" ("meok," which sounds like "muk" to Western ears when you say it fast) plus the word for "broadcast" ("bangsong"). So, really, "mukbang" just means "eating show" in Korean. Mukbang hosts are often referred to as "BJs," for "broadcast jockeys," a Korean term for vloggers in any genre, and not anything sexual. And even though it's yet another latest fad for even the most au courant American foodies, it's positively venerable by internet measures of time, first popping up on a South Korean video streaming service a decade ago.

The fact that mukbang originated in the Land of the Morning Sun isn't surprising. South Korea is fully steeped in online culture (internet use is nearly universal among South Koreans, and they have the world's fastest and most developed internet connectivity), and that's reflected nearly every aspect of daily life. At the same time, Korea's long been a food-loving culture, but without some of the taboos that might make most Americans balk at chowing down in a public forum where all eyes are on you, like slurping or eating with your mouth —neither of which are a big deal when you sit down for a meal at a Korean family's table. Some have argued that mukbang fills a communal void in a society where tradition once dictated that children didn't leave their parents' homes even after they married but where now more and more people are living on their own.

It's surprisingly straightforward, yet something so seemingly anodyne by today's standards as eating a spicy seafood stew while answering a couple questions from a guy in Incheon is enough to earn the top mukbang personalities six figures a year and millions of fans—the king of mukbang streamers, 28-year-old South Korean Jeong Man-su, better known as Banzz, peaked at 3.1 million followers on YouTube. The trend spread to nearby Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan, then around the world, including the U.S., where the BJs tend to have unmistakably American takes on the genre. The host of "Wendy's Eating Show" (just under 1 million followers on YouTube) is known for eating foods covered in Hot Cheetos, while Erik Lamkin, aka Eric the Electric (1 million followers), is also a competitive eater and keeps a tally of how many calories he consumes on his broadcasts, once hitting 100,000 calories in 100 hours.

So what happens in a mukbang video, exactly? Well, pretty much what you'd think: The host eats food and you watch it. Sometimes there's a lot of interaction between the mukbang personality and his or her fans (who message via an offscreen laptop), and sometimes there's basically none. The audio aspect of the broadcast is arguably as important as the visual (remember how slurpy Koreans can get?), but the more popular hosts tend to be highly expressive as they eat, with faces sometimes verging on the sexually ecstatic. No cuisines are off limits—some of have made a name eating spicy foods, others American comfort food and so on, though lip-smacking noodles are a perennially popular mukbang subject. And whiffs of the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest aside, it's usually not about gorging, at least ostensibly—though it's hard not to notice that the personalities with the most followers tend to put away voluminous amounts of food while somehow maintaining slender figures, and experts, meanwhile, warn that mukbang culture encourages unhealthy eating habits in viewers.

Still baffled? Then think back to when cooking shows in the U.S. first left the confines of educational public television and went fully mainstream, with the rabid followings to match. It's really not all that different, except that mukbang leaves out the semi-manufactured drama and cuts to the good part, like a full episode of lingering shots of Padma Lakshmi enjoying the winning meal.