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[Weekender] Behind the scenes of Korean food crazes

From 'fire noodle challenge' to tanghulu, food trends attract those who want to engage in broader social and culinary experiences

By No Kyung-min

Published : Sept. 23, 2023 - 16:01

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(Gettyimagesbank) (Gettyimagesbank)

Besides the enduring popularity of Korean staples, a series of food crazes has been providing fresh gustatory excitement in Korea, however temporary their popularity may be.

These trending foods span a wide array of categories, ranging from beverages and snacks to bread and noodles. Some are fleeting fads, while others become consistent sellers in the food industry. And then there are also those relinquish their momentary fame to other emerging culinary sensations.

Currently reigning supreme are Chinese candied fruit tanghulu and Meoktaekkang, a new twist on Korea's beloved classic snack Saewookkang. Yet, the question lingers: Will their popularity stand the test of time?

The sold-out effect

The desire for novel culinary experiences is often influenced by a variety of factors, but one of the key drivers is people's heightened interest in products that are limited in supply or have low availability.

In short, people desire an item more when it's hard to get.

The late 2014 phenomenon surrounding Honey Butter Chip illustrates the power of the sold-out effect and its potential pitfalls for manufacturers.

Honey Butter Chip bags are stacked at a grocery store in 2016. (Herald DB) Honey Butter Chip bags are stacked at a grocery store in 2016. (Herald DB)

With word-of-mouth and viral social media reviews fueling the hype surrounding this sweet and savory potato chip, snack manufacturer Haitai Confectionery and Foods witnessed explosive sales growth. Within a three months of its launch, the sweet treat raked in sales totaling 13.7 billion won ($10.2 million).

As demand continued to surpass supply, the firm decided in mid-2015 to add a new production line, which was completed the next year. By the time, supply was increased, however, demand had already petered out.

According to data from the Food Information Statistics System, Honey Butter Chip sales last year amounted to approximately 20.7 billion won, ranking 14th on the list of Korean snacks sold that year.

The latest snack craze is Nongshim's fish-flavored Meoktaekkang, launched in June this year, which is experiencing soaring popularity to such an extent that it now commands premium prices on secondhand online platforms.

People wait in line to buy fish-flavored Meoktaekkang at an E-mart in Seoul, July 30. (Newsis) People wait in line to buy fish-flavored Meoktaekkang at an E-mart in Seoul, July 30. (Newsis)

For these snack crazes driven by the sold-out effect, experts point to the combination of relatively affordable food prices and low supply that offer a sense of instant gratification for consumers.

"The desire to hop on new trends often finds an easy outlet through food products, which are more readily affordable than excessively priced luxury items," explained Choi Chul, a professor of social sciences at Sookmyung Women's University.

He also placed the act of purchasing the products ahead of the actual tasting experience, saying, "People often develop a strong desire to acquire these sellouts. It stems from the urge to participate in the event and demonstrate to others that they possess something unique.”

"I recall the media and everyone talking about how scarce Honey Butter Chip was in supply," said Lee Yoon-hwa, a resident of Gyeonggi Province in her 50s.

"That was the sole reason my family became interested in the snack. We imagined the snack must be somehow different, although the first bite was not exceptionally surprising," she added.

The viral effect

Lee Young-ae, a professor of consumer science at Incheon National University, highlights the role of social media in disseminating and fueling food crazes.

"Nowadays, many use social media to showcase their food-related experiences, seeking a sense of accomplishment and recognition through comments," she explained.

In the past, online eating broadcasts known as "mukbang” on YouTube -- where viewers experience visual and auditory sensations by watching the hosts eat -- were particularly instrumental in disseminating food trends.

In 2014, for instance, the "fire noodle challenge" featuring Buldak Ramen erupted on YouTube, successfully establishing the Buldak Ramen series as a prominent brand both at home and abroad, although the noodle challenge remains an ongoing phenomenon primarily in foreign countries as of now.

With newly emerging social media platforms in the late 2010s like Instagram and TikTok, snappy, short videos and posts about food have become an integral part of today’s food trends.

A search for “#tanghulu” in Korean on Instagram returned over 140,000 posts as of this month, signifying its status as one of the most talked-about food items at the moment.

Screenshot of an Instagram page displaying search results for Screenshot of an Instagram page displaying search results for "#tanghulu" in Korean (Instagram)

For 12-year-old Kwon Min-jae, a resident of Seoul, the tanghulu craze is presented in a range of brief, attention-grabbing content.

Kwon noted that he not only indulges in consuming content related to eating and cooking the sugar-coated fruit, but also shares his eating experiences with friends on social media.

He even further embarks on tanghulu tasting adventures with them.

"Sharing the diverse flavors of tanghulu with my friends after school is quite an enjoyable experience," he said.

Indeed, the snack's fame has soared on the back of viral videos and posts on social media that draw people in with its colorful visuals and crunchy sounds.

According to data released by Woowa Brothers, which runs Korea's top food delivery app Baedal Minjok, searches for tanghulu has surged 47.3 times in July this year compared to January on the platform.

Moreover, the largest tanghulu franchise in Korea, Dalkom Wang Ga Tanghulu, has rapidly expanded its business to approximately 300 stores nationwide as of July, marking a sixfold increase in five months.

Professor Choi elaborates on the motivation behind people's quest for culinary experiences, attributing it to their desire to engage with the latest mainstream trend.

"Continuous exposure to trendy foods in the social media world spur people to seek out firsthand experiences," Choi explained.

"Furthermore, while immersing themselves in the current buzz, they gain a sense of security in staying abreast of what’s new, sometimes to the extent of being overly preoccupied with peer opinions."

Yet, amid the uncertainty of whether this sweet indulgent trend will endure, several issues have arisen, including concerns about its high sugar content, an increase in burn injuries during cooking, and an abundance of discarded wooden sticks littering the streets.

Lee from Incheon National University cautions against excessive indulgence in trendy foods, as many of them tend to be overstimulating, with extremely high sugar, fat or salt content.

"Strongly flavored trendy foods can be occasional delicacies. However, health concerns may arise for children who have less control over their diet, necessitating parental guidance regarding media exposure and eating habits," she noted.

When it comes to the transient nature of most food fads, Choi pointed out that fresh trends will always come to the foreground and replace the older ones.

"In the end," he said, "people move on to seek new sources of delight through new trends. It's a continual cycle of replacement."