What is ‘mukbang’? Inside the viral Korean food phenomenon

For years, people have been heading to YouTube to spend upwards of 60 minutes at a time to watch strangers consume 4,000 or more calories in one sitting. Not only that, many of these viewers are paying to indulge in this binge-viewing, binge-eating privilege. Today, this viral trend is only growing in the U.S.

It’s called mukbang (pronounced “mook-bong”), and it translates to “eating broadcast” in South Korea, where professional mukbangers can make up to $10,000 a month — not including sponsorships from food and drink brands.

Simon Stawski, a Canadian blogger who co-founded Eat Your Kimchi, moved to South Korea in 2008. Mukbanging first came onto his radar in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 that it became the kind of phenomenon that crosses continents.

“In Korea, it’s not common for people to go out to eat by themselves,” Stawski told TODAY Food in 2018. “Dining is a social activity, and you don’t sit and eat alone. For those that can’t eat with others, they’ll more than likely stay home to eat alone, but they’ll still have the urge to socialize while eating, which is what I think mukbangers replicate.”

A big part of the mukbanging experience is the potential ASMR component. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response” and people who experience this phenomenon claim they receive immense pleasure from watching or listening to everyday habits like whispering, hair brushing, folding clothes and more. ASMR artists, such as American YouTuber Trisha Paytas, often perform in videos with food, and sounds like slurping, chewing, crunching and many other noises emitted while eating, give many devotees the “tingles.” For mukbang fans like Sammy Bosch, who admits she initially thought watching and listening to other people eat was weird, it’s almost hypnotic.

Related: The K-pop plan is based on traditional Korean whole foods, which are low in sugar and fat.

“I prefer the seafood, crab and ramen videos,” Bosch told TODAY in 2018, who credits the videos for helping curb her hunger and relieve her stress. “While watching others eat rich food you can fantasize that you are eating it. For me, I associate food with pleasure. So, watching these videos makes me feel happy.”

It’s people like Bosch (and celebrities like Lisa Rinna’s model daughters, who admitted to watching mukbang on this season’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”) who keep mukbangers like Christi Caston in business. Caston, a Texas native, is the host of YummyBitesTV, an “ASMR/mukbang” YouTube channel where she claims she makes twice as much money as she made working a 9-to-5. “I mukbang every day,” Caston told TODAY, “And I make a comfortable living from it.”

Christi Caston seafood boil mukbang video (Christi Caston)
Christi Caston seafood boil mukbang video (Christi Caston)

Mukbangers may chow down on everything from dozens of bowls of ramen, to buckets of KFC, multiple pizzas, piles of crab legs, pails of candy and even heaping helpings of salad.

But how much are these YouTubers really making?

“It really depends on how you use your platform,” Soo Tang, whose YouTube channel, MommyTang, has over 496,000 subscribers, told TODAY. Tang, like all of the top YouTubers with monetized videos, takes a share of the ad revenue generated by views. “I’m based in the U.S., so payout is different from mukbangers in Korea.

“However, once you get popular, you can make close to $100,000 a year here in the U.S. There are many endorsements, e-book and product review payouts.”

Another popular American mukbanger, Erik Lamkin, aka Erik the Electric, told TODAY in 2018 that most of his revenue comes from YouTube ads and sponsorships. (Although he said he’s never been compensated by Krispy Kreme or In-N-Out Burger, which both frequently appear in his videos.) In South Korea, mukbangers are also able to cash in on digital donations from viewers, with direct money transfers from fans.

Lamkin, whose YouTube video “The All American ‘Mukbang’” has over 627,000 views, said it’s hard to put a number on how much money he’s made in the two years since he started mukbanging about once a week. But, he can quantify how it has grown his social following. “I’ve gained about 258,000 subscribers on my YouTube Channel and almost 30,000 followers on Instagram,” said the 26-year-old who is based in California and credits cycling and powerlifting for maintaining his 180-pound weight. Now, he’s amassed 1.28 million YouTube subscribers and 135,000 Instagram followers.

Related: Judy Joo achieves an extra crispy crust on her fried chicken wings with two secret ingredients.

As for the most craziest thing he’s ever eaten? “The most outrageous thing I’ve ever eaten in one sitting [was] a 12-pound burger, now called the ‘Lamkinator’ that I had named after me after completing it in a restaurant here in San Diego,” Lamkin told TODAY. He said his foreign audience members generally like to see him eat typical American fast food items like french fries, chicken nuggets and burgers.

But Lamkin added that when he’s not publicly eating large quantities of food, he sticks to a very healthy diet.

Erik Lamkin cereal mukbang (Erik Lamkin)
Erik Lamkin cereal mukbang (Erik Lamkin)

Despite the sensory allure of mukbangers’ videos, doctors and dietitians warn that this viral trend can be dangerous to both types of consumers.

“Although some viewers report they watch these videos as a way to satisfy their own food cravings to help them stay on track with their weight loss plans, the nature of mukbang videos can trigger disordered eating patterns in susceptible viewers,” Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, told TODAY. And for the mukbangers themselves, there’s a plethora of risks, including triggering a heart attack and developing insulin resistance.

Still, if the allure of getting a few more followers, and perhaps a few more dollars, has you tempted to try eating an entire pizza, then washing it all down with a giant bottle of Diet Pepsi in front of an audience, Lamkin has a few words of advice: “Be prepared for people to critique how you eat.”

Related: Chef Judy Joo shares her favorite Korean ingredients that will wake up any dish, including the popular gochujang, as well as kangjang, mirim and more.

EDITOR’S NOTE (August 14, 2020, 11:30 a.m. EST): This article was originally published Feb. 23, 2018 and has since been updated with new information.

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