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Seoul's soul food

South Korea’s food porn superstars take gastronomic voyeurism to the next level — in the process introducing the unique flavours of hansik to the rest of the world

  • Muk-bang stars sit down in front of webcams and work their way through vast quantities of foodImage Credit: YouTube
  • Park Seo-yeon, or The Diva, has filmed more than 12,000 hours of herself eatingImage Credit: Reuters

Still taking pictures of your food for social media? That is so passé — the latest craze in South Korea is to have people log in to watch you eat!

Muk-bang — a combination of the Korean words for eating (muk-ja) and broadcast (bang-song) — has grown into a social phenomenon in the last couple of years and its stars are celebrities in their own right. They sit down in front of webcams at any point of the day (sometimes many times) and work their way through vast quantities of food while talking about it and interacting with fans, who tune in by the thousands on laptops and mobile phones. It’s gastronomic voyeurism — and the ultimate food selfie.

“Korean traditional food is very diverse. It is influenced by the four seasons that occur in the country and the provinces of each region.”
-Prof Yoon Sook-ja | Director, Institute of Traditional Korean Food
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Park Seo-yeon, better known as The Diva, is one of the most famous broadcast binge-eaters. She has filmed more than 12,000 hours of herself chowing down on noodles, fried meats and dumplings. It’s estimated that she earns up to $9,000 (Dh33,052) a month through advertising revenue and sponsorship from fans.

Social role
But why is it so popular? For muk-bang fans it could be as simple as eating vicariously through these food porn superstars. However, some suggest it plays a social role — families eating together is an important part of South Korean culture, but with more and more people living alone, that tradition is fading. Muk-bang is a way of not eating alone, even though you happen to be on your own and watching (or being watched) through a screen.

Korean food remained a mystery to the rest of the world long after culinary offerings from neighbours China and Japan became commonplace — perhaps because the cuisine is a lot harder to define. “Korean traditional food is very diverse,” says Prof. Yoon Sook-ja, Director of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food. “It is influenced by the four seasons that occur in the country and the provinces of each region.”

Australian chef Paul Schenk, Head of Food and Beverage at Dubai’s Crowne Plaza, previously spent six years running F&B for the InterContinental Group in Seoul. Naturally, he’s a big advocate. “Korean food is amazing,” he says. “It’s spicy, it’s pungent, it’s got a lot of textures.”

Koreans refer to traditional food as hansik. It is swiftly gaining popularity, pairing nicely with popular trends like the slow food movement and food as medicine. The cuisine prioritises the use of natural ingredients, heirloom vegetables and meticulous attention to preparation. There’s also a heavy reliance on fermentation to break down sugars and provide healthy bacteria. Herbs are selected both for flavour and medicinal properties.

Government efforts to promote the cuisine include significant investments in Korean eateries in global hotspots and cookbooks for international markets.

Some Koreans feel the push towards the globalisation of hansik happened too late, with other Asian cuisines already so familiar to international palates. For example, only three Korean restaurants made it to this year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, with Jungsik taking the tenth spot. Chef Jung Sik Yim serves up New Korean cuisine at what was the world’s first restaurant to offer the molecular gastronomy experience with Korean ingredients. Ryunique gained the 27th place with its brand of modern fusion food, based on the experience chef Tae Hwan Ryu gained in five-star kitchens across Japan, Australia and the UK. Judges named his seared duck breast with smoked leek and orange miso jus a standout dish. The Shilla Hotel’s La Yeon is at number 38 and was also named the one to watch.

Take to the streets
As elsewhere in Asia, street food is big, and Seoul boasts 15 Korean food streets such as snow crab street, soft tofu street and raw fish street. Chicken street in Pyeonghwa Market was only added to the list this year, but the Korean Tourism Office says it’s fast developed a reputation for unique chicken dishes at affordable prices.

Typical vendor snacks include fish cakes, spicy sausages, fried dumplings and rice cakes.

Halal food is rapidly making its mark in South Korea, and last month’s Korea Food Show 2015 devoted an entire exhibition hall to halal food displays. The number of halal restaurants across the capital is growing steadily. Historically, they have specialised mainly in variations on Indian, Nepalese and Pakistani cuisine.

But this is changing. One exception is Eid Halal Korean Food. Proprietor Yu Hyun-woo’s restaurant is one of only five across the country that has been certified by the Korean Muslim Association and the only one offering Korean food. Here, Yu introduces himself to customers by his Muslim name, Saad Yusuf, and prepares halal takeaway boxes (dosirak) for tourists and prepackaged halal bulgogi to cook at home.

Korean food 101
Ginseng is probably  South Korea’s best known export. The plant is considered to have healing properties and is commonly enjoyed as a tea, although it can also be added to soups and stews. Here are some of the country’s most popular dishes:

Kimchi: The most renowned of Korean dishes, kimchi is simply pickled vegetable, and while there are more than 200 varieties, the staple of this fermented delicacy is cabbage. Koreans eat it both for the health benefits and for the sharp, sour taste that complements rich, meaty flavours.

Bibimbap: A simple traditional dish translated as Korean rice. The staple rice (bap) is served with stir-fried vegetables and topped with a fried egg or thinly sliced meat, usually beef. Bibimbap is the ultimate comfort food for Koreans, and according to the Korean Food Foundation, a traditional proverb goes, “The moment a spoonful of bibimbap enters your mouth, the bitterness and resentment in your heart starts to melt away.”

Bulgogi: Considered Korea’s favourite meat dish, bulgogi means fire meat. It consists of beef marinated in soy sauce, honey, spring onions, garlic, sesame and pepper and then grilled. The tasty marinade can then also be mixed with rice.

Five to try
1. Sobahn
1st Floor, Matloob Bldg, Shaikh Zayed Road, 04 380 7888
Speciality: Bibimbap
Restaurant manager Mohammad Abd Al Kader says its Korean barbecue night is a hit with customers who tend to be a mix of corporate types or families depending on the sitting. The black cod rivals that at Zuma and Nobu.

2. Hyu
Oud Metha Rd, opposite Rashid Hospital, 04 334 4294
Speciality: Naengmyun (buckwheat noodles in cold soup) General Manager Woo Young Kim says this dish is popular in hot weather. “Korean people like to have this after marinated short ribs because it is not so heavy and buckwheat noodle helps to digest fat.”

3. Mannaland
Mina Road, Satwa, Opp Ramada Jumeirah Hotel, 04 345 1300
Speciality: Banchan (side dishes)
When customers praise a restaurant for its value for money and friendly service, it’s no surprise that the most talkedabout dish on its menu is the complimentary selection of tapas-style nibbles offered on arrival. The daily choice of banchan varies according to market availability but the kimchi is a staple.

4. Shogun
Al Ghurair Centre, 04 228 5568; Media City, 04 448 9290
Speciality: Chef’s special salad (with avocado and tuna) Noted for its authenticity among Korean patrons, customers love the generous portion sizes, fresh ingredients and well-balanced flavours. Be prepared to wait for a table when it’s busy, or book ahead.

5. Kung
Byblos Hotel, Tecom 04 432 7966
Speciality: Dbukbegi bulgogi (marinated beef hotpot)
If you want to sing for your supper, then Kung’s eight private karaoke rooms are the place to do it. Popular with groups of Korean expats and football teams alike, Kung’s menu is also geared to sharing — the large portions of soup or stew can be cooked at the table and easily serve three to four people.