Dalgona, mandu: Squid Game and BTS are driving a boom in Korean-made goods

CJ Cheiljedang's mandu (right) and dalgona, a nostalgic honeycomb-like sugar candy also known as Ppopgi. PHOTOS: SJ.CO.KR, REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - The booming global popularity of South Korean entertainment is luring consumers to embrace the country's culture and cuisine, fuelling sales around the world of items ranging from mandu dumplings to water purifiers hawked by boy band BTS.

South Korea's pop music, the success of films like the Oscar-winning Parasite and television shows including the Netflix series Squid Game are bringing once-obscure brands into the mainstream as far away as the United States.

Here are some of the South Korean products finding new customers abroad:

1. CJ Cheiljedang's mandu

Food sales of frozen dumpling maker CJ Cheiljedang Corp jumped 19 per cent in Asia and Europe in the third quarter and 8 per cent in the US after two members of the popular K-Pop band BTS fought publicly over mandu, Korea's popular style of dumpling.

CJ's 2019 acquisition of American brand Schwan's Co - the maker of Mrs Smith's Pies and Tony's Pizza - helped the Korean company increase sales in the US food market by utilising Schwan's distribution channels and local factories.

Nearly half of CJ's sales in food business came from overseas in 2020, rising sharply from just 14 per cent in 2018.

Since 2020, Schwan's has operated so-called "Asian Destination" - zones inside US retailers that display Asian frozen foods, including products like its main mandu brand Bibigo, according to the company.

Unlike Chinese dumplings long popular with western eaters, the mandu Bibigo sells in the US feature a thin wrap with a mix of chicken and cilantro.

YouTubers demonstrating how to steam or fry the mandu are also proliferating. Mandu typically have a thinner wrap and more ingredients in their filling than dumplings from neighbouring China.

The Seoul-based company had 670 billion won (S$766 million) in mandu sales overseas in 2020, almost double its domestic haul. An ad for Bibigo has since September been featured on the uniform of the Los Angeles Lakers, who play in a city that is home to a large Korean-American population.

"Food is the easiest way to experience a country's culture," said Ms Mijin Jo, an analyst at NH Investment & Securities in Seoul.

"The success of K-content is giving a positive signal to Korean food makers, while the global demand for the foods has been rising during the pandemic."

2. Nongshim instant noodles

Parasite created a mix of two called "chapa-guri," to which the wealthy housewife's maid added expensive Korean beef. PHOTO: REALRHEN/TWITTER

Instant noodle maker Nongshim Co's stock spiked after one of Parasite's female characters cooked two of its products - called Chapagetti and Neoguri - to show how some wealthy Koreans might jazz up cheap ready-made noodles by adding expensive beef.

Nongshim's overseas sales jumped 24 per cent year on year in 2020, to US$990 million (S$1.3 billion), after the movie received the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020.

The company believes Parasite's popularity contributed to the craze for its instant noodles. It also resonated at home, with a 60 per cent surge in domestic sales of the two products in the three days following the Oscar win.

The Seoul-headquartered firm is building a second factory in the US, to increase capacity to sell up to 850 million bags of noodles in North and South America.

Nongshim's biggest product, Sinramen, is South Korea's most popular instant noodle.

Koreans' consumption of the noodles per capita is the world's highest, with an average of 80 packages consumed per year, according to the World Instant Noodles Association.

Chapagetti is an instant version of Korea's famous jajangmyeon - noodles in black bean sauce. Neoguri noodles contain seafood and spice.

Parasite created a mix of two called "chapa-guri", to which the wealthy housewife's maid added expensive Korean beef. The recipe was new even to Koreans, and inspired noodle-lovers across the country to copy it.

3. Dalgona (sugar candy)

Street vendor Lim Chang-joo stamps a star shape onto a dalgona in Seoul on Oct 10, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Dalgona, a nostalgic honeycomb-like sugar candy also known as Ppopgi, is resurging in popularity after Squid Game's characters famously had trouble cutting it into shapes.

Some restaurants in the US are now serving the candy - which originated during the Korean War and used to be sold by vendors in front of school gates for children to eat after class - on their dessert menus.

Sales of the classic snack surged 343 per cent on popular Korean shopping site Gmarket.co.kr from after the series was released on Sept 17 through Oct 11, compared with a month earlier.

They also rose 351 per cent at online retailer Auction.co.kr. The candy has also gone viral on social media, with people on TikTok and YouTube trying to cut the hard candy into shapes including stars and circles, just like the participants of the deadly Squid Game in the show.

Part of the allure of making the candy while locked down during the pandemic is the simplicity of the ingredients - would-be dalgona makers need little more than sugar and baking soda.

4. Samyang ramen

The Hot Chicken Flavour ramen is a super-spicy flavour that is particularly popular in China. PHOTO: SAMYANGFOODS.COM

Samyang Ramen - the country's oldest ramen brand, owned by Seoul's Samyang Foods Co - was exposed to tens of millions of viewers worldwide when the host of Squid Games' deadly follies suggested the show's main character taste the noodles at a convenience store.

Even before its surprise appearance on one of the most popular streaming shows ever, the company had already been exporting to 80 countries overseas.

About half of its sales come from abroad and nearly 80 per cent of overseas sales were its Hot Chicken Flavour ramen, a super-spicy flavour particularly popular in China.

Some foreign consumers have even held their own contests to eat the spicy noodles as quickly as possible - they are so hot that even Koreans have been known to struggle.

5. Coway air and water purifiers

Coway Co has used BTS to advertise its products, which include mattresses, since March. PHOTO: COWAY.COM

It is not just food companies that are luring new customers overseas.

South Korean air and water purifier maker Coway Co has used BTS to advertise its products - which include mattresses - since March.

The move has paid off as South Korean singers' popularity skyrockets in markets including the US, with Coway reporting record total sales for the third quarter, driven by 43 per cent growth in Malaysia and 12 per cent in the US.

In one commercial the seven members of the boy band sit around around Coway's two newly released water purifiers, discussing which one they would choose, including whether they want a device that instantly makes ice and sparkling water.

One of the singers concludes: "Why so serious? Whichever you choose, it's Coway!"

In another, each artist dances and spins around a premium purifier model to a hip-hop beat. Then there are the ads for Coway's mattresses, which feature the heartthrobs of BTS sleeping peacefully on their backs.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.