The demands on Ahn and other mukbang stars like her are high — she can’t just eat, she must eat ferociously. As she devours noodles, loud slurping is a must. Audiences offer feedback on a live stream, asking how spicy the noodles are, suggesting she move dumplings closer to the camera or do a dance in excitement. The stream continues for three hours every night.
The most successful binge eaters can make a lot of money and become quite famous. It may be that such shows offer a way for Koreans living alone to have a kind of companionship, even if it’s virtual. According to Ahn, most of her fans are women, many of whom are on a diet; she speculates that the eating shows are popular as a way for those women to eat vicariously. A professor of Asian Studies at UC-Irvine, Kyung Kim, has a different explanation:
Eating is something one activity that is strongly identified as being natural, and spontaneous…You think about K-pop or K-drama [and] they’re very artificial, they’re all about makeup and plastic surgeries. And a lot of people find this — mukbang — to be the exact opposite of all the things right now Korean popular culture really stands for.
Of course, describing the huge volumes of food consumed in the eating shows as “natural” might seem a stretch. I’d be curious if the binge eaters ever include a strangely popular food in Korea, Spam, the U.S. processed pork product from the 1930’s, which is particularly used to make a spicy soup known as budae jjigae, or army stew.