Whether it be the mass explosion of the selfie stick (which has led to governmental regulations and even penalties for those caught owning or selling unregistered sticks) or the strange Spam gift sets that pervade the nation during the holidays, South Korea's collectivist instinct can be a powerful phenomena when combined with the nation's enthusiastic consumerism. The proclivity of the nation to adopt large-scale trends is quite unparalleled, so when a new convenience store snack recently became noteworthy for the mania it stirred around Seoul, with abundant rumors about the impossibility of procuring a bag of said chips, my interest was piqued.
In August of 2014, Haetae Confectionary & Foods Co., along with Japanese snack food enterprise Calbee Inc., introduced the hottest junk food to hit the Korean peninsula this millennium: Honey Butter Chips.
Within just a few months, the simultaneously sweet, salty, and buttery chips catapulted into a craze at a rate that trumped the instant fads of K-pop acts and Korean melodramas. K-pop stars such as Sooyoung of Girl's Generation, Siwon of Super Junior, and T-ara's Hyomin began posing in selfies with gilded Honey Butter bags propped besides their cheeks and posting the snapshots online, with self-loathing captions. "Stop tempting me so much!" wrote actress So Yoo-Jin, posting a picture of a bag on her Instagram. A popular news broadcaster for KBS even proclaimed that she was "laughing and crying over one bag of chips" and uploaded a picture of herself decadently sitting in a fur coat in an SUV holding up the famously elusive golden yellow bag.
Soon, the Honey Butter Chips became as rare and prized as Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket. Convenience stores were consistently sold out of the item. Disgruntled employees became so annoyed by beleaguering inquiries about the next shipment they posted signs on their door notifying that they were out of stock.
The Honey Butter Chip rage spread to the internet, disseminating via the constituency of Twitter and Instagram netizens. Twitter user @hodori_love likened the ecstatic moment of finding the chips to scoring narcotics: "I was wandering around because there were no stores selling the chips, when a worker from a shop saw me … He asked me quietly, 'How many bags do you need?'" (The post was retweeted over 5,000 times.)
When stores began to tape Honey Butter Chips to less coveted snacks to sell in three-pack bundles, message board users claimed that the Honey Butter Chips were being held hostage. Interestingly, these jests signaled a major psychological shift in the pop cultural evolution of the country.
Korea is a nation that earnestly exported Psy's "Gangnam Style." K-pop stalkers (also known as Sasaeng fans [사생팬]) so persistently and avidly vote for K-pop acts that their domestic entertainment product recently swept the international YouTube awards. With the fastest broadband internet, a penchant for conformity, and a dexterity in pushing viral marketing campaigns, Korea reigns worldwide in terms of its cultish celebration of the most recent "hot commodities."
The Honey Butter mania suggested that South Koreans were becoming aware of the role they invented for themselves in the world of fandom and hype. As a result of their immense popularity, Honey Butter Chips quickly became unobtainable. By November of 2014, just three months after their release, sales had reached 10.3 billion KRW (approximately US$9.3 million). This caused a heavy backlash of speculation.
Murmurs of conspiracy abounded: Were they being rationed by Haetae Inc. to keep demand high and prices inflated? Were they hoarded by convenience store clerks for acquaintances? When were the shipments coming in? Shifty lurkers began convening at the neighborhood GS-25 during evening hours, when they had heard rumors that the shipments of the chips would arrive. In fact, Haetae Inc. became so bombarded with customer interrogation that they replied with an official statement in the Hanguk Ilbo newspaper declaring that they were unable to supply at the current rate of demand, despite increases in their production day and night.
But perhaps the most preposterous manifestation of the Honey Butter Craze is the subsequent international black market. On eBay, one recent auction had a winning bid of $103.50 USD for two 120-gram bags of the chips. Compare this to the fact that at a typical convenience store, a bag costs around 2,500 KRW ($2.40 USD).
Approaching the half-year mark, the frenzy for Honey Butter Chips has yet to subside, and the original version released by Haetae last August is still nearly impossible to acquire. Several clerks told me they receive one shipment every two weeks, which sells out in hours. Fortunately, for those craving an approximation of their flavor, innumerable imitation honey-butter chip products have flooded and diluted the market, with offshoot versions from every competitive brand offering some slight variation of the honey-butter theme in terms of shape, texture, taste, and form.
Now, the leading debate in Korea regards which knockoff Honey Butter Chip trumps the original, if any at all. Is it Nongshim's honey-mustard flavored Sumi Potato Chips, which recently dethroned Haetae for the title of top Honey Butter Chip sales? Or could it be Haetae's Honey Tong Tong, a newly introduced honey-flavored sibling snack to the original? What's to be said of the Honey Cheddar Chips, the Honey Corn Pop Chips (which boast to be "never fried"), or Jagabee's Honey Mild fries?
The most frequently cited reason for the Honey Butter Chip's quick rise in fame has been that it broke the pre-existing Korean notion that chips could only be one of two flavors: salty or spicy. Supposedly, Honey Butter Chips are the edible proof that snack food in South Korea can also be sweet. Despite the blatant contradiction that this argument makes in relation to the plethora of sugary popcorn, chips, and potato snacks available throughout South Korea, it offers insight into the conjectural ambiguity that surrounds the actual flavor of the chips.
I mean, do they even taste good? Or is their fame merely mass indoctrination? And what's to be said of all of the facsimiles?
Using as a prototype the guidelines set by Haetae's description on the bag itself—that the Honey Butter taste blends acacia honey ("sweetly from a beehive") and French butter ("gourmet" butter, to be exact)—a small taste test was conducted among my friends to figure out which Honey Butter Chip imitator is the tastiest.
Unsurprisingly, it was quite difficult to differentiate one brand from another. The signature Honey Butter flavor was strikingly similar across the board. It seems, at least to us, that all companies have acquired the fundamental powder seasoning and merely modified the physical structures of the chip without changing the basic processed coating of sweetener.
Neither honey nor butter sensations were prevalent. More acutely, the chips mostly tasted like Lay's generously sprinkled with Splenda. Notwithstanding the major letdown, the results are in.
Of the eight (!) varieties of honey-butter chips that we tried, the top spot actually went to underdog Nongsim Honey Mustard chips, followed by Haetae Corn Pop and Haetae Tong Tong. In fourth, fifth, and sixth places were Lotte Honey Potato Chips, Haetae Jagabee Honey Mild chips, and Lotte Honey Butter Potato Snack. Finally, puttering in last were the less impressive Crown Honey Cheese chips and Samlip Honey Butter Croutons with Real Cream.
But maybe the point isn't the flavor at all—it might just be the decadence of getting your hands on something that everybody wants, even if it's nothing more than a snack.