Dirt: The voyeurism of Korean food YouTube

Watching craftsmen at work.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Watch: YummyBoy (YouTube). Sasha Cordingley describes the voyeuristic pleasure of an anonymous YouTuber documenting Korean cooking.

I live in a fairly rural part of England. Only 10% of the population are ethnically non-white British, and diversity almost exclusively comes from the one local university. Food here is reflective of that: take your pick of fish and chips, bangers and mash, or the occasional Indian takeout. I miss other food, a lot. 

My hunger often takes me to YouTube and its culinary vloggers who mimic the overexaggerated, performative tropes of those featured on the platform’s trending page. Neck veins pulse as eyes bulge towards the lens’ center. With a full mouth the vloggers exclaim a hurried “WOW” as soy sauce drips down the corner of their lips. It’s a production factory whose only output is spectacle, but this year’s shift to the hellish scroll of Online All the Time has lowered my saturation point for much of contemporary content’s attention-grabbing maximalism. Instead, I want something like a Muji aroma diffuser, its velvety stream of fragranced mist softly enveloping my body. I think I found it in the YouTube channel YummyBoy.

Ranging from 2 to 20 minutes in length, the videos follow the faceless, voiceless YouTuber as they gently guide me through tours of how some of Korea’s foods are made. Somehow YummyBoy almost always catches the cook at the start of the process; the stovetops aren’t hot yet and the stand mixers are still clean. In some videos they’ve arrived at a street stand that’s still covered in protective blue tarp, the owners just stepping into frame to set up for the day. After a brief shot of the establishment’s name, I’m taken in front of, next to, and behind the counter. I’m out on the street with a few other passersby, hovering over a steaming pot of tteokbokki, cylindrical rice cakes cooked in a glossy red bath of gochujang and broth. A hand reaches in and samples a piece on a toothpick. 

In another video the camera cuts to a worktop: the faceless cook methodically spreads, shapes, then flicks a block of fishcake paste into a vat of hot oil with a metal stick and a stainless-steel spatula. I’m in a kitchen watching gloved hands slap a mound of freshly risen dough; it billows tenderly and slowly releases its edges across the length of the cutting board. I’m a flaneur, caught mid-stroll by the modest maneuvering of a craftsman at work.

There is no narration at all. The videographer is a silent guide, merely lending themselves as a vessel for us to witness the creation of food. Occasionally I hear the slippery dunk of egg yolks into a mixing bowl, the clang of utensils against metal, the call of competing vendors advertising their products, or the laughs and workplace exchanges of the cooks. In one video, the radio is on in the background, its melody barely carrying against the glop of liquids mixing. By not forcing commentary, YummyBoy allows me to sit with the audible rhythms of food-making, the hypnotizing and repetitive crackles and thuds.

YummyBoy isn’t the only one with this strategy. There are channels with variations on the name that follow the same faceless, voyeuristic format, including Yummy Yammy, YumYum, and Foodie Boy, with a large portion of their videos garnering millions of views. Even the titles, mostly in English, follow the same naming convention of noun plus adjective followed by an exclamation point. They almost exclusively feature food made in Korea, and all seem to have access to behind the counter kitchens and stalls. 

I have no idea who they are — Google searches merely lead back to their YouTube pages — but the cynical part of me thinks they may all be the same person maximizing reach by creating many different channels. While none are composed enough to be pure ASMR, the format follows a pocket of Korean and Japanese lifestyle and culinary vlogging where audio narration is relegated to the past, replaced by silence or the occasional caption; anonymity is foregrounded instead of the spectacle of celebrity; and the dull routines of everyday are recorded as if for a national archive. Watching these videos, I’m not reminded of the sponsorships and merchandise that inevitably parallel the success of most YouTube channels; all that comes to mind are soft vibrations, a gentle glow, fresh donuts dunked in chocolate icing. It’s 1 AM and I’m buoyed along by its mellow current, watching in silence as a block of butter crumbles into flour. — By Sasha Cordingley

The Dirt: YouTube doesn’t need personalities.