Honbap: Past vs Present

“Honbap”= hon (honja= alone) + bap (food)

For the past 13 years of my school life, I’ve always been going down to the canteen/school diners every break with my friends to enjoy discussing assignments and many interesting school affairs over lunch.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Eating is a communal event at my house. I sit at the table with my parents and siblings, and exempting days of school examinations, we eat, talk, laugh and tuck into our desserts for 1-3 hours before returning to our rooms.

So when I first came across the concept of “honbap” a few years ago, it was, to me, merely a trendy portmanteau coined to explain an activity that was intellectually interesting to observe but irrelevant to my life.

That was until I came across a news article featuring a (2016) drama, “Drinking Solo”. (or: “Hon Sul Nam Nyeo”: literally meaning “Men and women who drink alone”) In one of the still cuts, I saw actor Ha Suk Jin drinking and eating alone after work.

Maybe the samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly) on the hot grill turning to a juicy brown, or the sushi in his chopsticks, or maybe it was just because it’s Ha Suk Jin- that suddenly, I had a thought- “What if I try to actually enjoy honbap?”

I had grabbed a Subway sandwich or a burger when I was in a rush, but that didn’t really count as a legitimate Honbap. Eating alone- especially when I was outside- had made me a tad uncomfortable. (What if people think I have no friends? What if I look like I have no one to eat with?)

So one day when I was in secondary school and studying in library in town alone, I went down to a pasta diner, and ordered pasta with alfredo sauce.

Instead of a little hurriedly finishing my meal as I always had when eating alone, I sat down and enjoyed my pasta for a slow 20 minutes. (Actually not really because the pasta was really not to my liking but…)

The secondary school me felt like a grown-up adult paying for the pasta (I should’ve gone for what I usually go for…) and elegantly enjoying it by myself in the diner. Slowly having a meal, completely on my own, wasn’t so bad (although still awkward).

Photo by Adrienn on Pexels.com. My mental image of myself back then

The awkwardness I have with honbap is shared by my fellow Koreans, as evidenced by the coining of even a whole new term- “honbap”- in the first place. The act of eating alone was and still is not the norm.

Only with the emergence of dramas, celebrities and even restaurants that support honbap did eating alone become more acceptable and even “cool”.

JLOOK] 혼술혼밥도 외롭지 않은 럭셔리 다이닝 바 - 중앙일보
Photo credits. An example of a honbap restaurant that serves customers who want to eat alone

The fact that there’s some stigma that comes with eating alone (and still is to a certain extent) in Korea is quite interesting, given the original eating culture of the country.

Eating alone was in fact the norm even in the Joseon era. Each person was given a “sang” (a round table with rice and side dishes).

Only when the Korean War (25 Jun 1950 – 27 Jul 1953) started, with the lack of resources, a family was forced to sit at the same table and eat. Before the era of Korean War, eating was just a method of addressing one’s hunger- people didn’t talk or eat together.

When Korean society evolved from an agricultural one to one focused on manufacturing and services, opportunities for family members to gather together were drastically reduced, making lunch/dinner rare valuable family time.

월간조선
Photo Credits. A scene from “Reply 1988”; a family enjoying a meal together

So the concern of some people in Korea being perceived as “inssa” (popular kids) eating with a large group of friends, or “assa” (outsider/outcast) if seen eating alone is based on a pretty recent change in the Korean eating culture.

강아지까지 행복한 시저 가족식사 - YouTube
Photo Credits

Eating with family and friends is a time of wonderful and precious time of bonding, but with the hectic pace of modern life, eating alone is more and more becoming inevitable. Plus, eating alone allows us some time to really focus on our food, our thoughts and our needs. Especially for those living and working in cities where constant proximity to others isn’t exactly our choice, being able to enjoy alone time is definitely a necessity for our mental and emotional health too.

My hope is that one day, both honbap and eating with others will be natural parts of the lives of people in Korea and everywhere else!

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