South Korea’s Passion for Watching Strangers Eat Goes Mainstream

How to explain the popularity of staring at people chewing their food.

ByABC News
April 6, 2015, 6:05 PM

— -- Kim Hyo Jin, 25, known as “BJ Hyo-jjang” by her fans, talks, laughs and eats alone in front of her webcam every night. But actually she is accompanied by more than 100 people who watch her online and even chat with her as she dines.

A strange way to enjoy one’s time with other people, but what is stranger is that she is paid for doing so.

This trend of "muk-bang"—a combination of the Korean expressions "muk-da" and "bang-song," each translatable to "eating" and "broadcast"—has been around since 2008. It started off in the online livestreaming platform AfreecaTV.

Individuals, who call themselves BJs—shortened for broadcast jockeys—eat large amounts of food, mostly unhealthy but mouthwatering plates and talk with the viewers, not only about what they are eating but whatever else is on their minds. Viewers send them "star-balloons," internet currencies that is the source of solid income for the BJs. The star-balloons are sometimes sent when they eat a lot or make funny comments, but most of the times, they are sent randomly.

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During the last year or two, watching other people eat has made its way into mainstream TV programs. Now, you can see people eating on TV screens. They don’t cook and then eat, like ABC’s "The Chew" or PBS’s "America’s Test Kitchen," but they just eat. Eat and talk.

It started off with the TV series "Let’s Eat," which is about three singles gathering to dine together. About one-fifth of the 50-minute episode shows the three biting on food and chewing, the camera close-up on their mouths and the ends of their chopsticks.

Programs like "Tasty Road" and "Shik'Shin" Road find popular restaurants and show celebrities trying the menus. You can see people digging into their dishes, making somewhat exaggerated sounds of eating and commenting on how delightful or disappointing the taste is.

So, why are Koreans so attracted to “eating” shows? Song Dong-min has been watching muk-bang through AfreecaTV for five years. The college student says, at first, watching the BJs devour portions that he couldn’t gave him vicarious satisfaction when he was on diet. However, when he was done with the diet, he couldn’t stop watching. “The BJs eat with a gusto and I just enjoyed watching them eat.”

Park Junhwa, the director of "Let’s Eat," gives a different reason for the trend which has made his series a hit. He believes the culture, which considers eating as a communal activity, is the key.

“For Koreans, eating is about being together with other people. There are certain Korean foods, like the Korean barbeque sam-gyup-sal, that are more suitable for sharing with other people than eating alone. Sharing food is another way of saying 'enjoy this with me.'” He adds that the rise in single-person households is a push to this trend. Single-person households now make up 26 percent of all households, up 11 percentage points since 2000.

So although more and more people live alone, many do not wish to eat alone.

BJ Hyo-jjang says one of the best part of working as a muk-bang BJ is communicating with her viewers and fans real-time. “Of course, income is an important part. However, the most motivating factor is my viewers’ wish to be with me and to see me eat and talk in front of the camera.”

Hyo-jjang admits that muk-bang BJ is not a lifelong job, but she hopes to continue until her viewers do not want to see her on screen. Muk-bang has even changed her dream. Before she came on screen she was a translator, but now she hopes to work in the mainstream broadcast when she retires as a BJ.

The Korean word for “family” is “shik-gu,” which also means "people who eat together." This word implies the weight put onto the act of eating in the Korean culture. Eating is one of the most intimate and essential part of one’s life.

To Koreans, sharing food is a way of affiliating with others. Hence, in the modern era where this tradition is fading, watching others eat or conversing with them via the screen may be a small source of a comfort.

Yoongeon Hong and Yeonjoo Lee and Joohee Cho contributed to this report.