Korean youths are pairing cheap bento boxes with gourmet desserts
In Korea, eating a meal together used to be all about the social occasion. One Korean professor observed that the Korean word ‘family’ originally meant ‘those who eat together’, and the verb itself carries strong connotations of community and sociability. Eating together is an essential ritual in the bonding process that unites groups of friends and family, while legitimising their social existence. This way of thinking may have also originated with the traditional custom of sharing soup in one big pot around the family table. However, the recent Korean recession and the decline in youth spending gave way to two emerging trends in the food category: Japanese bento lunch boxes and luxurious desserts.
The ubiquity of convenience stores and an ultra-busy lifestyle first normalised the bento as a natural meal choice. The lunch boxes, or doshirak, market is growing rapidly, with ever more diverse and creative menus that take the original idea into a whole new level. You can now have traditional rice balls or Korean soups like Soondaeguk (Pork sausage stew) in a single portion, portable version. Special bentos offer new choices, such as protein-rich bentos, for people with dietary restrictions, and special vegetable soups cater to people with a bad hangover. Since soups are a fundamental part of traditional Korean cooking, those Doshirak help younger, busy people enjoy the warmth of a hearty family meal even when eating alone. The personalisation of these traditional food experiences is already proving to be a successful strategy with an approximately 200 per cent increase on lunch box sales alone compared to last year.
The reason lunch boxes got so popular among younger age brackets has to do several socioeconomic factors. According to the OECD, Koreans are the busiest workers in Asia, with an average of 2,113 working hours in 2015. In this type of cutthroat working culture it is no wonder that eating together is becoming more difficult. Secondly, poverty among young people is also becoming a grave problem. With unprecedented youth unemployment rates, millenials are now struggling to enter a nonsensically competitive job market to earn evermore-eroding wages. So, the bento box is becoming an appealing option either because Koreans are burning the midnight oil, or simply since they can’t afford anything better. Why spend extra money when cheap bento boxes are available anywhere, anytime? Being busy also means people have no time or willingness to accommodate other people’s feelings and be polite, as Korean culture and table manners dictate. Food is gradually becoming quite the opposite of a social, or communal occasion, turning instead into a practical solution – a quick fix that allows you to stay in the game.
The flipside of cheap bento boxes comes in the form of premium desserts. Apparently, Koreans are spending more money on elaborate sweets than they would spend for a full, proper meal. Pictures of long queues to the fancy French macaroon café Laduree went viral online, and Japanese premium roll cake brand Osaka Dōjima sells a single cake for about 18,000 Won – well above your average bento price. Trendy desserts are, naturally, the ones that look great on Instagram posts. The Korean premium dessert market is growing more than 30 per cent every year despite unfavourable market conditions, and commentators say that the fact that the market doubled in the last five years has a lot to do with the social sharability of desserts on social media networks and platforms.
The growing gap between Korean youths' spending on mains and desserts might seem ironic, but there is a psychological reason for it. Since extravagant desserts are probably the biggest luxury Korean youths can afford, their infatuation with both cheap bento and expensive macaroons stems from the same condition. Bentos are appreciated for the utility they serve in their lives (the good cost-performance value), and desserts are consumed for personal satisfaction and social capital. For most Koreans this combo makes for a very rational choice, given the conditions of their lives.
As the country goes through a severe economic recession, we’ll probably see more and more Korean millennials favouring nutritional values over social occasions, and sharable luxurious experience over just heavenly taste. These two conceivably contradicting trends illustrate the emerging shift in the way Koreans’ social appetites and earthly needs are negotiated in the smartest way possible.
- Article by Mirae Yoon