THESE DAYS, it seems as if everyone does the same activities during their leisure time: visiting matjibs with good food and chatting with their friends. This assimilation of hobbies has occurred especially among those who are in their twenties and thirties. Then, what is this matjib trend about? What is the significance of a place to be classified as a matjib, and why do people suddenly crave for good food? What are the connotations in the emergence of such a trend?
The beginning of the matjib trend
Korea is now experiencing a socially predominant trend of matjibs in which people visit around restaurants that are famously known for their good food. It would not be too much of an overstatement to say that the majority of those living in Korea have visited a matjib at some point, which proves that the matjib trend has, indeed, become embedded in Korean society; the fact that there are countless blogs and personal websites on the Internet that introduce and analyze all kinds of food around the country, along with the fact that it is not so hard for an individual to encounter the food maniacs clearly manifest how dominant and omnipresent the matjib trend is in our daily lives. According to the Naver dictionary, the Korean term “matjib” stands for "restaurants that are famous for the high quality of their menu." First, to ponder upon the definition of the word, the issue at hand gets controversial because there is no specific and concrete matjib criteria by which everyone abides to, and the precise meaning of the adjective "famous" remains ambiguous. Yet, sociologists observe that the chance of restaurants to actually retain their titles as matjibs can be determined relatively clearly. For instance, while some restaurants attempt to gain fame through marketing techniques in order to initially be perceived as matjibs, active advertising and marketing cannot entirely cover up for their poor quality of food. Kim kwang-bae (Prof., Dept. of Sociology) comments that true matjibs inevitably succeed in maintaining their fame for a longer duration of time than the matjibs that have attained their fame through media and advertising, because it is the food quality that brings the consumers back to the restaurant. Perhaps it is a natural tendency for humans to enjoy eating good food; after all, it is generally known that the beginning of the matjib trend in Korean society can be traced back into history, almost to the times when people began to settle down in groups and communities to start businesses, including restaurants and cafeterias. Throughout time, there have always been some people in history who sought for high-quality diet, and simultaneously, there have also been eating places that were acclaimed for their highly satisfying quality of food. Yet, it was actually through the innovation and development of communication technology that the matjib phenomenon was able to evolve from a small hobby to a sweeping societal trend. From the increasing scope of social networking services (SNS) to the empowerment of individuals in expressing their personal lives through blogs and websites, the matjib trend has been and still is greatly assisted by the communicative technology that allows people to share, find, and develop their own interests. The Hankyoreh newspaper reports that the average number of monthly visitors for the "Seoul matjib" section of "Wingbus" (a website which recommends matjib) exceeds 300,000, and this hints at how much communication technology boosts the general social trend of people looking for and visiting high-quality restaurants. The public's common interest in matjibs becomes even more evident when massive numbers of books, TV programs, and even car navigation systems advocate and assist people in finding their ways to matjibs. Smartphone applications such as "Twelve o'clock," media programs including "Find the delicious TV" and numerous books for connoisseurs are only a few examples that follow the matjib trend, which is now transforming from a mere few individuals' interest into a social and cultural movement of national scale. However, such numbers and statistics serve to reflect not only the inclination of Korean people towards good food, but also the progress and even evolution that the matjib trend has been taking in Korean society throughout history. It is notable that in the past, there only used to be “trend-setters,” such as food maniac power bloggers, who created and led the matjib trend. These days though, the second generation of trend-setters, who follow the forerunners of the trend and share the content that the trend-setters have introduced, have emerged. The rising second generation of trend-setters further shares, develops, and adds to their interest what the original trend-setters have produced, thereby expanding and creating a new pathway for the evolvement and growth of the matjib trend itself.
Then why are matjibs so popular in Korea? What is it about good food that attracts people? It is, indeed, strange and almost absurd to find so much enthusiasm, love and obsession for such a common necessity for survival. Pondering upon the other side of the argument though, an individual can find that because food and eating are one of the most, if not the most, important instinctive need for human survival, perhaps it is not so strange that eating high-quality food that matjibs offer has become a hobby that everyone can enjoy. Just as Mark Kurlansky, a highly acclaimed American journalist and writer remarks, “good food is more attractive than good sex.” Lin Yutang, a Chinese writer and translator, also confesses that since the most important factor from which he derives his happiness is eating, it may be a natural consequence that everyone has come to adore relishing the high-quality food that matjibs offer. A food expert further went on to comment that "what the contemporary opulent consumers crave for is less of the perfection of a familiar food but more of a sensational, new type of food," thus implying that food and eating has become a leading part of our society. In explaining the social implications and causes of why people have become so fond of eating good food, though, the matjib phenomenon does not singly pertain to human instinct. The social norms and societal atmosphere of Korea have altered over time, including those regarding the general notion and social perception on food, which had previously prevented the matjib trend from emerging to its full extent. In the past, what an individual ate was associated with his social status, especially since what one could eat was very much dependent on his earnings. As a consequence, there were unconscious connections between food and social status in people's minds; the better food that an individual ate, the richer he appeared to be and vice versa. However recently, as the society became more open and liberal, the type of food that one consumes became less and less related to one's societal and economic class, and this gradually led to the disintegration of the previously-made biases regarding food. This change is evident when one considers how the titles of the books that introduce matjibs have changed over time. Back in 2004, the general trend for the titles of connoisseur books indicated and even emphasized the socio-economical aspect of food. For instance, a book titled "Those Who Are Successful Eat Here" (Yu Ji-sang, Food Reporter) that was published in 2004 is directly contradictory to the title of another book called "How Can I Die Without Eating This" (Kim Hae-jin, Writer) that was published July, 2007. This discrepancy alludes that the focus and the purpose of eating have changed quite radically, from the socio-economic aspect to sensual and pleasure-related aspect of food, which in turn opened up the possibility for the matjib trend. Furthermore, the act of eating had remained quite private until recently, when Korean society dramatically adopted the Western values of democracy and freedom. Ever since, food has come to not only encompass but also outrun its primary role of serving the necessity of survival and nutrition. As the average standard of living, along with the country's economy, improved, the primary function of food both shifted and expanded; the expansion occurred in a way that the desperation and urgency for survival significantly decreased in modern society, and simultaneously, the shift of the purpose of eating happened as the quality and taste began to rise as important factors. According to Kim Nan-do (Prof., Dept. of Human Science, Seoul National Univ.) who published a book called “Trend Korea 2013,” much advancement and innovation is expected from the food and cooking industries due to the public's increasing interest in such fields. Hence, both eating and food have evolved into a form of a hobby, similar to other forms of enjoyment such as shopping. They have entered the realm of consumption for satisfaction, further enabling the unfolding of matjib trend. What also came along with this liberal societal change was the spotlight that was now available for individuals' personal interests. Whereas much of the focus and importance was bestowed upon the community and public in the past and excessive love for food was scorned upon as extravagance, when individualism began to rise in modern society, the concept of food and eating to be separated with that of indulgence. Food has, now, also become one of the main mediums through which people communicate with each other; by talking about food and through food, food has become what professionals refer to as a ”conversational resource” among the crowd. Many people experience this conversational assistance that food provides when they feel that socializing over food is much easier and relaxing than just talking to others with no food around. This facilitates the development of the matjib trend as conversational resource encourages the public to spend more time eating good food. People's tendency to re-visit those restaurants whose owners they know also reflects that food serves as the common denominator in terms of social interaction between individuals. In reality, it seems as if many people participate in the trend and look for matjibs for the combination of all of the above factors and reasons. Kim Sang-jun (Fresh., UIC, Underwood Div.) enthusiastically declares that he takes much pleasure in the entire process of looking for and relishing good food with his friends. "It is one of my favorite hobbies," he admits. "My friends and I love searching for matjibs whenever we go to a new place. It is both exciting and satisfying to realize that there is still much more to be tasted and relished in this world." Similarly, Rainy, a food power blogger who shares matjibs with more than 5,000 net-izens every day, tells that food is a big part of his life story, because it is through food that he makes his living, maintains his health, and communicates with millions of people who share the love for food.
Darker aspects of the Matjib Trend
Considering how prominent matjibs are in today's society, perhaps it is natural that such an enormous trend has side effects that are more fatal and dark than others. First of all, the secret of the good taste that matjibs can achieve and differentiate themselves from other restaurants is revealed to be due to a larger amount of salt, which is used when making the food. According to a Korean TV program called "Zero Complaint UP," in which the media staff conducted a survey that measures the amount of salt used in restaurants around the country, the food that is served in famous matjibs contains more than twice the amount of salt than food of the same kind do in less-known restaurants. The World Health Organization (WHO) claims that even without these matjibs, Koreans already consume 2.4 times more salt every day than citizens of other nations do. Noting that sodium, which is the primary constituent of salt, has been scientifically proven to be the third most detrimental substance that causes health damage, one realizes that the food that matjibs offer is fatal to the public's health. Along with the salt, there are other chemicals included in different kinds of food that are also known to be harmful to human health. It has been discovered that some of the chicken franchise restaurants use washing machines in order to mix raw chicken meat with food chemicals that would add taste to the final product. The matjib phenomenon also has the effect of encouraging diets, as more and more food and menus are becoming too delicious to be repelled. It's becoming harder to resist food, and this consequently leads to more people being obese. The core of the problem though, lies at the implied, underlying fact that the actual purpose of the matjib trend is becoming contaminated. Big, mega-companies are utilizing matjibs and other popular restaurants for their own purpose of advertising. Thus, the matjib phenomenon is often manipulated and has now expanded to the industrial realm of service and business, which inevitably leads to exaggerated and even false advertisements. In a Korean movie called “True Taste Show” staff members unveil all the corruptions and dark sides of the matjib trend by which people are deceived. On a similar note, a famous Korean comedian, Nam Hee-suk, confessed that he himself had made up and lied on a cable show that a restaurant run by his acquaintance was his favorite place to eat, when in reality, he had never visited the place before. Such false reporting and dissemination of information would ultimately result in contaminating the matjib phenomenon, along with the people's sincere desire for eating good food. Lamenting on all these corruptions and dishonest matjib reviews, Kim Jae-hwan (PD, “Sisain”) implied that there has never been a matjib introducing show that was entirely free from the distortion of information. * * * What was once a mere necessity has now become a cultural and societal trend that everyone chooses to follow. Primarily serving as a necessity for survival, food-related activities have now emerged as the main factor of Korean society, involved in sensational, communicative, and psychological aspects, and such trend consequently engendered the matjib trend. The evolution of the matjib phenomenon has unfolded long throughout history, and as all lights create shadows, the matjib trend also entails darker sides. Still, it is undeniable that the matjib trend has taken a great role in the Korean society, and despite its negative side effects, the scale of the impact which the trend will have still remains to be seen.
 *Matjib: a Korean vocabulary that refers to prominent, famous restaurants that are recognized, acclaimed and distinguished for their excellent quality of food