Koreans Have An Insatiable Appetite For Watching Strangers Binge Eat : The Salt What's behind the curious food fad of mukbang, or live-streamed broadcasts of people eating endless amounts of food? The genre is so popular in South Korea that its stars pull in $10,000 a month.
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Koreans Have An Insatiable Appetite For Watching Strangers Binge Eat

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Koreans Have An Insatiable Appetite For Watching Strangers Binge Eat

Koreans Have An Insatiable Appetite For Watching Strangers Binge Eat

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, it's hard to turn on a TV in the United States without seeing people cooking. Well, in South Korea, the big food fad is watching strangers eating. Viewers are glued to live streams of other Koreans binge eating. It is such a craze that the people consuming the calories have become celebrities. NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu reports.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: It's dinnertime in Seoul, and we're outside a subway stop waiting for Rachel Ahn, who goes by Aebong-ee. She's kind of a big deal in the world of mukbang, which translates to eating broadcasts. My interpreter spots her first.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: I think that's her in the red, in the mask. (Speaking Korean).

RACHEL AHN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: You're a big star.

INTERPRETER: I think she understood.

HU: She wears a mask because fans in the neighborhood might spot her, and there's no time for that. With less than an hour to go before her nightly 9 p.m. broadcast, Aebong-ee must get inside and prepare.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Korean).

AHN: (Speaking Korean).

MAN: (Speaking Korean).

AHN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: She orders enough takeout to feed a family of six. Tonight, it's spicy noodles, spicy shrimp, steamed dumplings, fried dumplings and another platter of even spicier noodles. By 9, the food's in place, the lights and microphone hot. About 200 of her fans are already chatting in a box next to her video stream. As she begins tearing into her food, the number of viewers swells above 1,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLURPING)

HU: That slurping is a specialty. Audiences like it when mukbang stars stuff their faces ferociously while responding to streams of live feedback. They'll watch and chat for hours. And this fad hasn't just made Aebong-ee a brand. It makes her a living.

AHN: (Through interpreter) In the beginning, I earned nearly nothing. And it started out really small. But now I'm earning more than my salary at my actual job.

HU: For eating lots and leading loudly, the the audience rewards mukbangers with virtual balloons that can be converted into cash. Tonight, in the first half hour of her three-hour netcast, Aebong-ee collects what's equal to 200 U.S. dollars. By midnight, she nearly completes all her food. Thanks to her copious consumption, she and other prolific Korean eaters now have fan clubs. No one's more surprised by this than the tech company supporting this trend, Afreeca TV. It provides the platform these mukbang stars use to stream and the cash converter that gets them paid.

HAHN YEH SEUL: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Afreeca TV's Hahn Yeh Seul says at dinnertime hours, 45,000 Korean viewers watch mukbang at the same time, a threefold growth since this emerged in 2013. The top-ranked stars make as much as 10,000 U.S. dollars a month. And that's not counting sponsorships from food and drink brands. But what's compelling so many Koreans to tune in?

SEUL: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Afreeca's Hahn suspects the growth of Koreans living alone gives mukbang a boost since there's a sense of community in coming together at a dinner table, even if it's only virtually.

AHN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Aebong-ee, who boasts a majority of female fans, says it's about eating vicariously.

AHN: (Through interpreter) Viewers who watch my mukbang are on a diet. And you call this a sort of gratification through others.

KYUNG KIM: Eating is one activity that is strongly identified as natural and spontaneous.

HU: Kyung Kim is a professor of East Asian studies at the University of California, Irvine. He thinks the audience hunger for mukbang is a yearning for something besides connection. It's a desire for something real.

KIM: If you think about K-pop or K-drama - they're very artificial. They're all about makeup and plastic surgeries. And a lot of people find this - you know, mukbang - to be exactly opposite of all of the things right now Korean popular culture really stands for.

HU: You could argue whether eating two extra-large pizzas in one sitting or six platters of Chinese food is really natural. But Korean viewers? They can't look away. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

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