Mukbang: How Koreans become stars through their love of food

Korea's love of food
Korea's love of food   

What happens when you combine the power of live online broadcasting with extreme-eating contests like those depicted on television show "Man v. Food"?

The answer: You become an online superstar—at least if you live in South Korea.

Fame and food-hungry Koreans are becoming famous through "Mukbang," or "eating broadcasts," in which people live-stream themselves eating vast quantities of food, while intermittently conversing with their cyber-audience.

Thousands of Koreans tune into these online broadcasts and even send money to performers if entertained.

Woman eating at a restaurant in a local fishing village in Sokcho, South Korea.
Afton Almaraz | Taxi | Getty Images
Woman eating at a restaurant in a local fishing village in Sokcho, South Korea.

One well-known Mukbang performer is Park Seo-yeon, a petite and attractive lady whose online success has allowed her to quit her day job, according to media reports. Reuters reported in 2014 that Park broadcasted for up to three hours a day, earning a monthly average of $9,400 and that one particularly successful broadcast earned her 1.1 million South Korean won ($1,017).

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Going global?

Back in 2014, Reuters reported that around 3,500 people were live-streaming themselves eating or doing similar shows; many using video-streaming service AfreecaTV.

This phenomenon generated more global interest last month, after U.S. entertainment duo "The Fine Brothers" uploaded a YouTube video of Westerners watching and reacting to Mukbang eating contests.

Many of the viewers appeared shocked by the amount eaten, with comments like "looks like a lot of food", whilst others were bewildered that people would tune in purely to watch someone eating food.

However, some Westerners and video bloggers have followed suit and posted their own versions of Mukbang online.

Simon and Martina Stawski are a married Canadian couple that blog and vlog (video blog) their experience of living in South Korea at eatyourkimchi.com. In April, they uploaded a 38-minute video in April to demonstrate Mukbang to their fans.


Some suggest that the Mukbang phenomenon stems from the fact that eating in Korea is seen as a very social activity, presenting a quandary to those who live, and consequently, eat alone.

"Eating in Korea is as much a social thing as it is a physical thing," Simon Stawski told CNBC.

He added, however that some Mukbang had become less about the "sharing experience."

"Some Mukbangs focus on bizarre eating habits, on overeating, and act more as a novelty show than a social sharing experience. There's a lot of exaggeration in Mukbang, and a lot of shouting," Stawski said.

Stawski added that the Eatyourkimchi duo wouldn't be trying Mukbang on a regular basis, as it was "difficult to be entertaining and interesting while scarfing down food."

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‘Shocked and disgusted’

Gabie Kook, a food vlogging star and finalist in television show "MasterChef Korea," told CNBC that at first, she was "very shocked and disgusted" by the quantity of food eaten in Mukbang. Nonetheless, she decided to try out the trend as a way of making her YouTube channel more appealing to Korean audiences.

During her Mukbang, Kook found it difficult to perform for the camera while eating.

"Normally, I don't eat making sounds or making huge facial expressions," she told CNBC.

"Also, it was hard for me to act like I was enjoying the food despite my full stomach! But the more I filmed, the more tricks I learn to 'show' how the food tasted like."

Kook said that Mukbang could provide the illusion of an eating companion for lonely viewers, but came with health risks for those on camera.

"Mukbang is extremely unhealthy for the person who is doing it. But for the spectators, it mentally satisfies them and leave them mentally full; some claim that it helps them be on a diet. Some people say that when eating alone watching them, it feels like you have a companion," she told CNBC.

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How Mukbang hosts stay slim

Kook said that unlike Mukbang hosts, she couldn't typically eat between 10 and 20 portions of food during shows that last for up to three hours. Yet many of the Mukbang participants remain strikingly trim.

Kook's explanation proved similar to that of "Man v. Food" presenter, Adam Richman. "The secret is to eat once, and not eat the next day or eat really little. Some exercise as much as they have eaten," she told CNBC.