The Korea Herald


Goodbye to ‘mayak gimbap’? Mixed reaction to limits on 'drug' marketing

By Hwang Joo-young

Published : Jan. 30, 2024 - 14:12

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A A "mayak gimbap" sign is seen at Gwangjang Market in central Seoul. (Newsis)

Gwangjang Market, a traditional market in central Seoul, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the capital, offering a wide range of local foods and snacks.

If you google the market, almost nine out of 10 reviews are about a petite-sized gimbap, or seaweed rice roll, with the intriguing name, “mayak gimbap.”

"Mayak" means “narcotics” in Korean. Of course, nothing advertised as "mayak gimbap" actually contains any restricted drugs. The name comes from the mustard-infused soy sauce that makes eating them addictive.

Monyeo Gimbap, an older restaurant in the market, is widely known to be the first place to add "mayak" to the name of its gimbap with the special sauce.

"In around 2012 or 2013, a customer who introduced himself as a famous blogger visited our restaurant. He later posted on his blog that he found our gimbap so addictive that he referred to it as 'mayak,’” the 42-year-old restaurant owner surnamed Cho told The Korea Herald.

As the restaurant's mayak gimbap became more and more popular, it led to a nationwide trend in the 2010s with various food items adopting the phrase in their names, such as "mayak tteokbokki" and "mayak corn dogs." The trend even extended to everyday household products, including chairs, desks and even bedding.

In 2019, a local pillow company registered for a product trademark for its "mayak pillow." Although the patent office initially rejected the company's application in 2017, the company eventually succeeded in registering the trademark after a series of lawsuits.

Stacks of Stacks of "mayak gimbap" are seen at Gwangjang Market in central Seoul. (Newsis)

But the now-common use of "mayak" in brand names, especially food items, could get restricted in the coming months as the nation’s food agency has recently announced new labeling guidelines for businesses.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said last week that local businesses are advised not to use phrases that remind people of narcotics in their food names or advertisements, in a bid to block narcotics from being portrayed positively and raise people's wariness about drugs overall. The bill takes effect in July.

The agency actually had sought to impose a complete ban on the use of the "mayak" phrase and punish violation cases, but the proposal faced massive resistance from businesses, most of which are small mom-and-pop shops.

As of January 2024, there were a total of 164 shops nationwide that have "mayak" in their shop or product names, according to filings at the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

"The phrase 'mayak' is simply meant to highlight the gimbap's reputation for being irresistibly delicious," said Monyeo Gimbap's owner, "But we are also making preparations to remove the phrase just in case."

Regardless of the limited impact of the administrative restrictions, some experts agree with the ministry that the unconscious use of terms bringing to mind restricted drugs could negatively affect people’s level of wariness about them, especially that of children.

"If phrases or images associated with drugs are spread in everyday life, that could lead to a lack of caution about drugs. Such advertisements, in particular, could confuse children about the dangers of drugs," said Lee Soo-jung, a criminology professor at Kyonggi University.

"Given the increased incidence of drug crimes, it is crucial for society to heighten its overall vigilance against drugs," she said.

Kim Jae-young, 60, a customer at Monyeo Gimbap, said she's fully aware she’s not actually taking drugs when eating the popular mayak gimbap.

“I visited here because friends of mine told me this restaurant’s gimbap is so excellent that I became curious about how the restaurant’s mayak gimbap tastes,” she said.

"I'm not necessarily against (the government) removing 'mayak' from food names, but I think there are probably more efficient alternatives."