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The Northeast Indian YouTubers challenging cultural stereotypes through mukbang



The Northeast Indian YouTubers challenging cultural stereotypes through mukbang

In the video that made him famous, Apollos Kent is barefoot, shirtless, and scooping fistfuls of snails out from a muddy paddy field.

He cooks the snails on a campfire with indigenous ingredients including ghost peppers and mustard greens. Then, he eats the dish with noisy slurps, licking his fingers with relish, and grunting in appreciation. The video has nearly 4 million views on YouTube.

Kent, a 34-year-old farmer, is among the best-known YouTubers from the northeast Indian state of Nagaland making mukbang videos. The videos, which originated in South Korea, feature a person eating vast amounts of food on camera. Mukbang has been criticized for promoting unhealthy eating and food waste. But Kent says he makes these videos to showcase a unique food culture, often stereotyped as “smelly” and “stinky.”

“Eating large quantities of food — that’s not my thing,” Kent told Rest of World. “Our [Naga] culture is diverse: We eat grasshoppers, we eat frogs, we eat snails. And I want to show the world that.”

India’s northeast includes eight states, and is home to various tribes and ethnicities — each culturally distinct from each other and the rest of the country. For local YouTubers like Kent, mukbang videos allow them to assert their identities and push back against culinary stereotypes that have isolated them from the rest of the country. Rest of World spoke to 10 YouTubers from Northeast India who make mukbang videos and they echoed Kent’s motivation for making such content.

Mukbang is a “medium for creators from the region to break stereotypes like ‘people from the region only eat insects,’” Otojit Kshetrimayum, a Manipuri sociologist and fellow at the Centre for North-East India at VV Giri National Labour Institute, told Rest of World. “These changes have come with easy access to the internet and inexpensive smartphones.”

According to data from Google Trends, northeastern cities like Dimapur, Kohima, Imphal, and Aizawl are home to more mukbang searches than anywhere else in India.

Food has often been used to discriminate against Northeast Indians. In 2007, the Delhi Police printed a handbook that asked them to refrain from “cooking axone and other fermented foods” that were “smelly.”  Last year, two men from Nagaland were assaulted for selling “northeastern” food in Ahmedabad. Landlords in the bigger Indian cities often do not rent out homes to people from the region because of the “stinky” food they cook.

“Maybe sometimes we should not get offended and just educate people.” 

When Snigdha, a YouTube creator from Meghalaya who goes only by her first name, was working in Bengaluru, she would often be asked if people from her home state ate cockroaches. Now, she creates YouTube videos of recipes with a range of Northeast Indian cuisines.

“There are a lot of inhibitions about our culinary habits,” she told Rest of World. “Maybe sometimes we should not get offended and just educate people.” 

Since joining YouTube in 2020, Kent has published over 270 videos on the platform.

YouTuber and farmer Shawalo Seb, located in Nagaland, initially jumped on the mukbang trend by eating 30 boiled eggs in his first video. But he quickly realized that his culture had “more special things to show,” he told Rest of World. Now he makes videos that feature local Naga cuisine.

That includes a video where he prepared honkerü marü, a chutney made with fermented dry mustard leaves, wild garlic, chilies, and tomatoes. “It’s become our signature dish,” Shawalo said.

“People know a lot about chicken and mutton. But I want to show that we eat a lot of greens, too,” Bitul Chakma, who makes mukbang videos of wild fruits and vegetables in Arunachal Pradesh, told Rest of World. In many of his videos, Chakma forages and cooks wild mushrooms.

Many mukbangers in the Northeast spend the first part of their videos cooking or foraging ingredients like eggs from a red ant nest, mud crab, or cicadas. This exhibits the intimate relationship between tribal communities, their land, and natural resources, according to Dolly Kikon, a U.S.-based Naga anthropologist and professor in the department of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“In these videos, food from the source to the table is being emphasized. There is [an] assertion of indigeneity, there is an element of ecology.  In a few minutes, they [the creators] are bringing the entire landscape in, and telling their own story,” Kikon told Rest of World.

In addition to the snail video, Kent has posted videos of himself cooking and eating local dishes like smoked pork with fermented soybean, and crab-egg chutney. “I am no less than a master chef,” Kent said, of his cooking skills.

Kent did not disclose how much he earned from his videos, but said it was enough for him to buy a refrigerator, a bike, and a car — things he considered luxuries before his channel took off. Seb said he earns around 12,000 rupees ($144) every month, which comes in handy to buy diapers and clothes for his children.

While the internet has helped them become celebrities in their communities, many of these creators constantly struggle with poor connectivity and slow speeds.

Before a mobile phone tower was erected in his remote village in the hilly border state of Arunachal Pradesh five years ago, Chakma would hike nearly 7 kilometers (1 mile = 1.6 kilometers) to another village with a better internet network to upload his videos.

Kent continues to battle connectivity problems. He’s figured out the best spot to upload his videos: He puts his phone on a flower pot outside his kitchen. Seb often treks 5 kilometers to another village to charge his devices during power outages.

Like every creator, these mukbang YouTubers deal with trolls and bullies. On one of Kent’s videos, a commenter said he would only “stop short of eating human flesh.” Kent deleted the comment immediately, but felt bad afterward. “It is what it is. This is what I eat and this is how I live,” he said. He isn’t discouraged and continues to upload a variety of mukbangs regularly. On the menu? Crispy grasshoppers, spicy silkworms, and fried spiders.

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