If the point of mukbang is to provide viewers with the secondhand satisfaction of watching someone else eat delicious food, then the ASMR mukbang videos of South Korean YouTuber Yammoo satisfy a craving you didn’t even know you had. Toward the stranger spectrum of the “food” she’s eaten: stones (made of chocolate) or light bulbs (made of candy). The video where she eats balls of air pollution (made of cotton candy) is a perfect example of how the creator is pushing the decade-old mukbang genre into its next evolution.
With air pollution levels at a record high, Seoul citizens have had to incorporate face masks, air quality apps, and home air purifiers into their daily lives. “This is a mukbang everyone can join in together,” Yammoo tells her viewers. “If you’re home, open your windows — if you’re outside, you’re already participating.” She removed her black face mask and began eating the grayish cotton candy balls, her chewing sounds amplified by the microphone. “The air quality levels were good today because you ate all of the pollution ^^♥,” wrote a commenter.
The video, which has over a million views, was part of a series in which Yammoo makes supersized foods from scratch, with product packaging designs re-created faithfully down to every last detail. So far, she’s made giant versions of McNuggets, packs of chewing gum, shrimp tempura, sausages, and chocolate bars. She’s also re-created franchise favorites that speak to the country’s current food trends, like an oversized cup of brown sugar bubble tea from Taiwanese boba chain Tiger Sugar and KFC’s fried chicken skins, which are sold exclusively in Korea and Indonesia. “Mukbang is already well-known globally, so I wanted to create something that was unique to me,” Yammoo told me in Korean. “Then I thought, ‘Let’s make huge versions of all the foods.’ Now whenever I see something at the grocery store, I think, ‘How can I supersize this?’”
Mukbang, a portmanteau of the Korean words for “eating” and “broadcasting,” first popped up on Korean live-streaming sites like Afreeca in 2010. Mukbang hosts provide company for viewers dining alone and, in some cases, act as their avatars, eating whatever the audience wanted them to eat. If the menu of the day was samgyupsal, or pork belly, a viewer could ask that they wrap the meat in some lettuce along with lots of grilled garlic and take a big bite for them. Yammoo’s twist on the genre makes her videos feel more like a comedic art project, but everyone is in on the joke together. She recognizes the inherent ridiculousness of what she’s doing — like in the boba video where she laughs as it takes all her strength to inhale bubble tea through the giant straw — but it doesn’t stop her from dreaming up even more absurd concepts.
Many have tried to jump on the mukbang bandwagon, but the genre has had some bad PR as it grew beyond Korea and expanded into platforms like Twitch. In 2016, Twitch introduced a “Social Eating” category, but it quickly devolved into news like “Twitch Streamers Are Eating and Throwing Up on the Air” a week after it was introduced. Americans who were quick to capitalize on the trend misunderstood that mukbang was never about gorging to make yourself sick; it’s about growing the connection between broadcasters and their audience over a meal. Yammoo has cultivated a relationship with her devoted viewers, who she’s lovingly nicknamed yamm-baechus (her “cabbages”). It’s strong enough that they’ll likely stick around even if the mukbang trend were to ever die down. She’s even let them “be” her in an experimental video where she turns the tables and lets viewers experience what it’s like to be a mukbang streamer.
Though she studied music in college, Yammoo’s interest in food led to her earning culinary certifications in Korean, Japanese, and Western cuisines. She started sharing recipes on her cooking blog in 2015, which featured step-by-step photos on how to make simple meals for beginners, appealing to an emerging generation of young Koreans who were living on their own for the first time. Eventually, she felt there was a limit to sharing recipes through photos alone. She turned to YouTube in 2016, and she’s amassed over 672,000 subscribers since. Her channel name is derived from her childhood nickname, which sounds similar to the real name that she’s asked to keep private.
“My first three subscribers were my family members,” she says. Her dad didn’t know what YouTube was when she told him she was going to be a YouTuber, but he trusted her instincts.
“There’s nothing better than having the freedom to make a living from doing what makes you happy, while making others happy,” he told her. Her mom is extremely supportive as well and has been known to help create some of the packages, like in this video featuring a giant bag of potato chips.
A big part of earning views on YouTube is a game of who can make the most click-worthy thumbnails. But Yammoo doesn’t need to make the “YouTube face” or slap on some hyperbolic text in the image to get clicks; her supersized creations, already exaggerated in size, are enough to pull viewers in to learn more about the food and the kind of person who would make such a thing. Her channel has evolved over the years, and she now uploads a regular mix of videos, from straightforward recipe tutorials (like how to make tteokbokki using only a microwave) to delightfully offbeat mukbangs where she eats edible copies of Harry Potter books and iPhones to product reviews of Korean convenience store items.
The speed at which new products enter and leave convenience stores across Asia makes for prime YouTube content. Reviewing novelty 7-Eleven foods is a common video template, a kind of service journalism along the lines of Trader Joe’s review blogs. The life cycle of a limited edition ramen or ice cream flavor makes it so that creators can try out and highlight which products are worth buying and which ones won’t last the summer. Yammoo’s reviews are honest and thorough, with real criticism coming from her cooking background. In a video titled “Two steaks for 10 dollars!,” she explains how a brand tried to pass a certain cut of meat as another with some sneaky knife work. (No one should be buying steak from a convenience store, but at least now we know why.)
Yammoo doesn’t make traditional mukbang videos in the binge-eating sense. She usually looks defeated by the end of the supersized mukbang videos, which are over when she gets full or tired of eating. (She gives the rest to her friends to reduce food waste, though she jokes that her friends have steadily stopped answering her calls.) No matter what she’s eating, whether it’s an actual meal or a small portion of the supersized food, she chews slowly and contemplatively like she’s taking in every bite and studying the flavors. In Korean, she has a measured way of speaking that’s clear and concise. “I usually don’t watch YouTubers because they’re so obnoxious and gluttonous, but you’re different,” a commenter gushes.
According to a 2018 survey by the Ministry of Education, Korean kids ranked “YouTuber” in fifth place on a list of dream jobs. (Athlete was number one, followed by teacher.) But it’s not just kids who want to be YouTubers, Yammoo tells me. “A lot of office workers want to do YouTube in their free time now. Cooking videos, mukbangs, and vlogs used to be popular. But these days, more people are creating more diverse content,” she says.
In a country obsessed with food, “food creators” are treated like celebrity chefs. The most popular ones have meet-and-greets at food festivals, compete on reality shows, release their own line of products (from frozen pork cutlet rolls to packs of braised beef) or go on to open restaurants. But Yammoo has written before that she won’t do TV appearances or accept money for sponsored videos because she can get by with support from her fans. When I ask her about this, she tells me she’d be open to certain opportunities. In the meantime, she just wants to focus her energy on her videos, which have become her full-time job.
In her experience, setting subscriber count and monetization goals just left her wanting more, so she’s chosen not to get hung up on those aspects. “I just try to focus on each moment, on whatever’s right in front of me,” Yammoo says. “I just want to take things one step at a time. I think that’s the best way to see the big picture.”