South Korea's insatiable hunger for honey butter snacks

The first two packets of Honey Butter Chip that the writer got her hands on.
The first two packets of Honey Butter Chip that the writer got her hands on. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON
The writer's daughter posing with 12 packs of Honey Butter Chip that became the subject of a treasure hunt during their first housewarming party.
The writer's daughter posing with 12 packs of Honey Butter Chip that became the subject of a treasure hunt during their first housewarming party. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON
The honey butter chips craze in South Korea has spawned dozens of copycat products, including these 15 snacks.
The honey butter chips craze in South Korea has spawned dozens of copycat products, including these 15 snacks. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON
Honey butter flavoured snacks seen displayed on the shelves of a minimart in Seoul. But the original Honey Butter Chip by Haitai-Calbee is nowhere to be seen.
Honey butter flavoured snacks seen displayed on the shelves of a minimart in Seoul. But the original Honey Butter Chip by Haitai-Calbee is nowhere to be seen. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON

On my birthday in April, my Korean husband gave me two "rare items" that got me squealing with glee.

We had been looking for them at every convenience store we came across in Seoul, but it was only when he visited his sister in a neighbouring city that he finally got lucky.

"They sell it to regular customers only," he told me in a text message. "To get one, you have to buy many other things!"

We're talking about snacks manufacturer Haitai-Calbee's hit product Honey Butter Chip, which literally fly off the shelves the moment they are displayed.

August marks the first anniversary of the launch of these sweet-yet-savoury potato chips, but the hunger for them is still insatiable. This is despite the company stepping up production to churn out 7.5 billion won (S$8.8 million) worth of these chips a month, according to local media reports.

Potato prices have more than doubled due to the overwhelming desire for these chips, as well as a string of copycat products from rivals, like Nongshim's Sumi Honey Mustard Chip, Lotte's Honey Potato Chips and Orion's Oh Potato Honey Milk.

Even American fast food giant McDonald's offered honey butter fries and ice cream for a limited period in late February.

The original Honey Butter Chip was nowhere to be found when I visited a local supermarket on Wednesday, but there were at least 20 alternative products on the shelves, from corn chips to potato sticks, popcorn, nuts, biscuits and even dried squid.

The beauty industry has also joined the craze, rolling out products like honey butter-flavoured hand creams and face masks.

And the list goes on.

South Koreans have a knack for embracing fads faster than you can say annyeonghaseyo (Korean for hello), especially if the coveted item is deemed to be cool, hip and endorsed by celebrities.

A sequined blue jacket made famous by actor Hyun Bin in the 2011 drama Secret Garden spawned numerous copycat outfits. Lipsticks worn by actress Jeon Ji Hyun in the 2013 hit drama serial, My Love From The Star, were sold out for months.

And when TV reality shows started featuring camping trips, tents suddenly became a must-have among families.

Food fads have also come and gone - doughnuts, bubble tea, macadamia nuts and the latest, fruit-flavoured soju.

But the honey butter craze appears to have longer staying power as it opened up new possibilities in a snacks market traditionally dominated by salty and seafood-based flavours (think prawn and squid crackers).

Haitai-Calbee, a joint venture between Korean confectionery Haitai and Japan's Calbee, had found in a survey that young women prefer a sweeter taste in potato chips.

Inspired by Calbee's own honey and butter flavoured Happy Butter chips launched earlier in Japan, they created Honey Butter Chip, which went viral after thousands of people raved about it online.

This reminds me of the Kokomyun instant noodle craze in 2011, when a recipe for spicy chicken noodles created by the popular actor-comedian Lee Kyung Kyu during a cooking contest on TV became the year's bestseller (69 million packs snapped up in just three months) and spawned a legion of copycats.

People loved kokomyun because it was different - its clear broth and gentle taste was a welcome change from the reddish soup and stronger beef or seafood flavours that they are used to eating. The noodles have since been exported to more than 20 countries, including the United States, Australia and Singapore.

Would Honey Butter Chip be equally successful? I'm not sure.

Haitai-Calbee can hardly make enough of these chips for domestic consumption, not to mention the international market.

The company has said this is due to production constraints, and they are in the midst of building a second factory in Wonju city in the eastern Gangwon province, with the aim of doubling output by early next year.

No one can predict if the craze would have died down by then, and judging by reviews posted online by overseas K-pop fans, not everyone enjoys the sweet and savoury taste as much as the Koreans.

Singaporeans who bought the chips from online store Qoo10 gave mixed reviews, with some saying it is yummy while others felt it is not as good as expected. Most noted that the chips are pricey - S$29.40 for 3 packs of 60g chips, or S$9.80 per pack, excluding shipping fees.

The same bag costs less than S$1.80 in South Korea - if you are lucky to find it.

A friend said she didn't like the chips as it felt weird to taste sweet chips when she was expecting something salty.

I think it has the right mix of sweet and savoury with a very pleasant butter aroma, but, truth be told, I enjoyed the thrill of finding the chips more than eating them.

Right after we moved to Seoul in May, my husband managed to buy 12 packs of Honey Butter Chips from a neighbourhood mini mart - he was lucky to be there when the new stock arrived.

We turned our first housewarming party into a treasure hunt for the chips, and kids and adults alike ravished their finds with delight.

But whether they will remember it when the next big food fad comes along remains to be seen.

changmc@sph.com.sg