Ah! It’s cold!”
In a YouTube video that received over seven million views in two weeks, Korean YouTuber Ssoyoung wrestles and cleans live octopus and mudfish before cooking and eating them on camera. The process is well-lit and documented from different angles, and Ssoyoung’s various shrieks and screams punctuate the slippery, slimy process. Viewers watch as she struggles to lift the squirming octopus to show the suctions on its legs and underbelly; she later pours the (live) mudfish into a glass container filled with water and salt—to clean them, she explains. At one point, the octopus nearly slides off the table, much to her consternation. However, by the end of the video, she’s cooked a massive spread for herself. The pink fleshy underbelly of the octopus, spread out, occupies nearly a quarter of the shot; the mudfish, sprinkled with sesame seeds and arranged neatly in a circle, sits in front of a row of sauces. “It’s so soft,” she says, before she takes an enormous bite out of one of the octopus’s tentacles.The fundamental appeal of a mukbang video, then, is the promise of satisfaction through excess.
Ssoyoung’s video is just one in a wide variety of mukbang videos that people can watch on the internet. A trend in which people film or stream themselves eating enormous quantities of food, mukbangs originally became popular in South Korea in 2010 and, over the past several years, have spread to other parts of the world, including the United States. The word mukbang is a mashup of two Korean words, “muk-ja” (which means eating) and “bang-song” (broadcast), which means that mukbang itself means “eating broadcast.” Professional Korean mukbangers stream their mukbangs on a site called AfreecaTV for thousands of viewers every week, using high-quality microphones and cameras to capture the visuals and sounds of eating. According to NPR, the most popular mukbangers can make $10,000 per month.
It’s only been in recent years that the mukbang has spread into wider global internet consciousness, right into the heart of American YouTube. Popular creators like David Dobrik and Colleen Ballinger, Timothy DeLaGhetto and the Try Guys have dabbled in mukbang videos, while others, like Stephanie Soo, Trisha Paytas, and Zach Choi, have become famous for them. The videos themselves can vary in purpose and tone. Some YouTubers, like Choi, don’t talk during their mukbangs and simply eat in front of the camera, recording the sounds in high quality for ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). Others film themselves eating and talking about a variety of different topics, simulating a dinnertime conversation, while still others simply binge-eat on camera and simultaneously provide a running commentary of whatever goes through their brains.
The ironic thing about mukbang videos is that the concept itself is not inherently entertaining. There’s no narrative arc or fancy editing, elaborate acting or high production value, all of which are things we might associate with the world of digital media and entertainment. (The fanciest mukbang to exist might be this Vogue video of Florence Pugh eating eleven English dishes.) The fundamental appeal of a mukbang video, then, is the promise of satisfaction through excess. “CHEESY FLAMING HOT CHEETOS + CHEESY TAKIS MUKBANG + FRIED CHICKEN & LOBSTER TAIL,” reads one video title. Other video titles include “$100 Worth of Wendys,” “JOLLIBEE FRIED CHICKEN + SPAGHETTI & CHICKEN SANDWICHES MUKBANG,” and “Every Flavor Cheesecake from CHEESECAKE FACTORY Mukbang.” Other YouTubers eat whole sushi rolls and nuclear fire noodles, triple cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets, Cheeto noodles and Pizza Hut, oxtails and king crabs, Popeyes and Jack-in-the-Box, alfredo pasta and spicy mushrooms, pad thai and Sonic. It’s a veritable feast—both for the person eating and for the one watching.
Frankly, I’m still a little bemused by why people watch them and why they watch them so avidly. While not bad in and of themselves, mukbang videos nevertheless serve as a perfect metaphor for a world of vast overconsumption, a world in which we can not only satisfy the most niches desires by tapping a few buttons, but also one where we can turn those desires into a full-fledged industry. We can order food to our homes and have our groceries delivered, take classes online, work from home, call our friends without having to make the effort to be in the same place at the same time, rid ourselves of all the little inconveniences that come with being human. With mukbang videos, we don’t have to eat dinner by ourselves; we can eat dinner with a different person every night. And if we’ve had rough days and want to binge-eat, we don’t have to even do the binging ourselves: we can simply watch other people do it in front of us, and place ourselves in their shoes. When we have the desire to binge-eat, but we don’t want to spend the money or the calories, we can watch other people do what we ourselves wish to do, and by proximity, by the end, feel better about ourselves by the end, because at least we haven’t eaten all this food.
It’s one of the iterations and developments of this Fahrenheit 451 we’re creating for ourselves. More than that, it reveals and reflects the emptiness that comes with trying to satisfy our desires with something so wonderful, that God created for us to enjoy, but that is entirely finite as well. We cook and order food just to eat it. We go to sleep at the end of every day, wake up, nourish our bodies, and then go back to sleep, only to wake up and do it over again. And yet, even when we feel most mired in this endlessly banal routine, God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:14). Often we try to lose ourselves in something as temporary as food in hopeless search of the eternal. But at the end of the day, when the last noodle is slurped, the last slice of pizza consumed, and the plate licked clean, what do we have left?
For even if every desire is met and every craving fulfilled, an appetite whose chief aim is earthly satisfaction will never be an appetite truly satisfied.