Honbap: A Trend Born from Loneliness
Updated: Nov 2
The first time I saw an anti-social ramen shop was in Japan. You paid for your preference of broth and toppings before entering the shop, accepting a token that showed your selection. The person who handed me the token was the last person I spoke to. I sat down at an open table for one within a rectangle facing outward. Each patron including myself was enshrouded by a three-panel curtain. There were people on both sides of me, but with faces I didn't see and voices I didn't hear. The place was completely silent except for the kitchen staff. Because of this outward seating arrangement and curtain covering, no one had to risk conversation or a chance of eye contact.
In front of me was a flat surface and a wooden door about a square foot in size. In the center was a narrow slot where I pushed the ramen token through. I heard someone from the other side receive it and start working. A ladle dipped into a bowl of broth. Pork belly sizzled somewhere on a hot surface. Moments later the door pulled open and a bowl of ramen was placed in front of me by an anonymous chef.
I was perplexed, but of course, this is nothing new to the people who see it all the time.
What is Honbap?
Honbap is a portmanteau of the words "hon" and "bap." Honja is the Korean word for alone, while bap could be either rice or to eat. Pressed together you have eating alone. Honbap is also frequently associated with the honjok loner movement that took place in 2017, where South Koreans began embracing their need for space and spending time alone.
The Rice Theory
Cheil Jedang (CJ), one of Korea's largest food manufacturers pointed out that the average Korean consumes 3.9 out of 10 meals alone.
Walking through a grocery store will show you any number of options directed towards the honbap crowd: single-serve stew packets, rice containers, and cook-for-one prepared meals. This is no shock to someone who's seen a TV dinner in their lifetime, still, consider the cultural phenomena surrounding this.
Researchers have studied the difference between 'rice-based' and 'bread-based' societies, finding evidence to suggest that there is more individualism among the latter. The idea of Rice Theory, while it follows the structure of proper rice farming, may also apply to consuming it as well. Another study compared the societal norms of agricultural China, where independence and singular thinking occurred more commonly in the wheat-dominated north.
Bread is portable, and easy to eat while walking, moving around, or doing any number of activities that involve just one person. The same can't be said for rice. Quite literally, people have to sit down and eat rice, and they usually do so among a group.
In a society that is unanimously rice-based, is honbap signaling a change in the tides, or a symptom of an unseen problem?
Is Honbap Inherently Lonely?
During a solo trip to San Diego a few years ago, I walked into a sushi restaurant and asked for a table for one. The maître d' appeared to short circuit, staring at me for a beat too long before mumbling, "Oh, uh, ok." To double-check he asked, "So, no date tonight?"
Then, there was another time when I met my friend for coffee in Seoul. While she was in the bathroom, I overheard the table beside us whispering about someone across the room who was drinking coffee alone. Shaking her head morosely, one of the girls said, "It's so sad to see people sit by themselves."
This second anecdote was well past 2017's honjok movement in Korea. The point is, why do we care so much about others eating alone? Or, more specifically, why do we associate eating alone as being lonely?
Some say it has to do with enjoying one's own company without the constraints of society. It's focused on not having to worry about how you look or act in public, which allows you to simply enjoy a meal.
Monica Kim wrote for Vogue, "Ultimately, it’s about taking time for yourself. It’s about letting go of society’s pressures and caring less what others think."
We Need Time to Ourselves
There are days at work that are so tiring, that I can't complete a properly-formed thought, let alone a sentence. You spend all week working yourself into chronic exhaustion, so the idea of having to perform and converse simply for the sake of niceties seems ridiculous. Sometimes, the silent moments seem a basic necessity for survival.
Perhaps honbap is a solution to modern living. While, safer, cleaner, and just generally better, modern life takes a significant toll. Life is more complicated than ever, with endless responsibilities to think about, financial decisions to make, and a gazillion distractions to pull us in all directions at once. It's no surprise that a survey from FlexJobs found that 75% of the working population experienced burnout.
What Do You Prefer?
It seems the opinions on honbap are mixed, with some suggesting that eating in silence is rude while eating alone is a cry for help. On the other hand, some just simply need the space to clear their minds and recharge their batteries. What do you think? Do you prefer eating alone or in a group?