January 07, 2020 13:38
The latest of Korea's endless food fads is for super-spicy food, especially among the young who enjoy the thrill of burn and sweat that it brings.
"Ghost Pepper" instant noodles containing Bhut Jolokia peppers, originally made by Shinsegae Food only for sale in Malaysia, is being imported back to Korea and sold for a relatively hefty W15,000 per pack on the Internet (US$1=W1,170).
Bhut Jolokia is so potent that it is used in India to manufacture tear gas.
Another assault on the palate is "One Chip Challenge" tortilla chips from the U.S. using Carolina Reaper peppers. Last month, a Korean YouTube clip went viral when a man ate a half-palm-sized piece and tried to refrain from drinking water for five minutes, only to be rushed to hospital.
"One Chip Challenge" tortilla chips too can be bought on the Internet here for W30,000 to W40,000 a bag.
Young Koreans are mesmerized. Kicking off the masochistic fascination, with its strangely cleansing aftermath, was the popularity of mundane Sichuan peppers over the last couple of years, and it spiraled from there.
One adventurous theory suggests that recessions somehow generate a preference for spicy food. Just after the Asian financial crisis in late 1997, sales of spicy Shin Ramyeon soared 20 percent, while a craze for spicy chicken feet started at a hole-in-the-wall bar in Seoul’s Gangnam area frequented by salarymen after work.
Then during the global financial crisis in 2008, spicy instant noodle sales began to increase again after slowing down, while sales of Samyang's chicken flavored noodle, which is even spicier than Shin Ramyeon, became popular during the economic slump in 2012 triggered by the eurozone fiscal crisis.
And last year when the youth unemployment rate soared to some 20 percent, young Koreans became entranced by Sichuan peppers.
Correlation is not causation, but some experts are inclined to take the trends seriously. Kwak Keum-joo at Seoul National University said, "Spicy food causes painful sensations and may help people feel pain from other sources less. You could say it's a kind of stress-relief remedy for a generation suffering from an acute shortage of jobs."
Park Bo-hyun (28), who is looking for work, said, "I've been feeling a lot of stress while searching for jobs and I found myself craving Sichuan food. I ate it more than three times a week and I felt my stress level going down each time."
Jang Choon-gon at Sungkyunkwan University said, "Our body perceives spicy taste as a form of pain, which releases endorphins and dopamine to numb the pain and makes us feel better. It's just one substance of many that can have the effect of exciting the brain and reducing stress."
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