Aurora Magazine

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The Big K

Fatima Attarwala on the lure of all things Korean.
Published 22 Jan, 2024 11:35am

“Kuch kuch hota hai Anjali, tum nahi samjhogi” (I feel something Anjali, you won’t understand), is a dialogue that every desi nineties kid remembers. Delivered by the King of Bollywood romance, Shah Rukh Khan, it is from the era of stolen glances, lingering looks and deep meaning between the lines – elements missing from the Bollywood romances of today, which are a lot more upfront in-your-face, jump-into-bed type.

This is where Korean romance dramas come in. The heart-moving emotions are all there: the unspoken words, the entwined but doomed destinies, the agony and the joy of love, the pretty girls with perfect skins and the handsome bad boys who love change. For people who want drama with more action and adrenalin, series like Squid Game have become a phenomenon. Similarly, the synchronised movements of NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls have been replaced by Blackpink and BTS (before the latter had to go on a hiatus).

The love for all things Korean originated in the realm of entertainment, then grew into a broader cultural movement, influencing how people shop and engage with the world around them. Over the past two years, the popularity of K-dramas and K-pop has exerted a palpable influence on consumer choices, with teens and younger adults (13 to 35) at the forefront of this cultural shift. Insights from Daraz, a leading e-commerce platform, underline the sway of Korean culture on their platform.

“BTS-themed merchandise is all the rage on Daraz. Shoppers are particularly keen on items such as bags, t-shirts, hoodies, posters, notebooks, mugs, and mobile phone covers that feature the band,” says Muhammad Ammar Hassan, Chief Marketing Officer, Daraz Pakistan.

However, the cultural wave extends beyond merchandise, as noted by Fatima Khan, co-founder of Aura Crafts, a skin and haircare company. She points out that the popularity of K-pop has translated into a burgeoning interest in achieving ‘glass skin.’

In a country where fair skin is still the criterion of beauty, albeit a less socially acceptable goal, Korean beauty products promise all that a mother-in-law requires in her future daughter-in-law’s looks: flawless, fair porcelain skin. Korean beauty ingredients offer a no-make-up look, all the more desirable in a society where girls with obvious makeup are considered ‘undesirable.’ The shy, demure look is featured heavily in local dramas, while the vamp prances around with heavily made-up eyes as the angelic lead looks fresh-faced. Korean skincare’s glass look gives the appearance of clean, hydrated, pore-less, firm skin.

Adopting a ‘less is more’ philosophy, Korean beauty products prioritise preventing skincare concerns over concealing them, as explained by Khan. This approach inspired Aura Crafts’ incorporation of Korean-inspired ingredients into their latest K-Repair range.

The influence of this philosophy extends across the skincare industry, with a diverse array of products, ranging from imported high-range brands to small companies, proudly featuring Korean ingredients or drawing inspiration from Korean skincare practices. Hassan at Daraz sheds light on the Korean wave’s impact on the e-commerce platform’s beauty sector. Top-tier Korean brands such as Laneige, Etude and Cosrx are highly sought after by users and this surge in demand is not limited to established brands; it extends to trending beauty products deeply rooted in Korean beauty culture, such as lip tints, sheet masks, serums and essences.

The popularity of these items on the platform signifies a significant consumer interest in embracing Korean beauty trends. Daraz’s recent onboarding of a local brand, Klean Beauty, further exemplifies the extent of this influence. The brand, heavily inspired by Korean beauty formulas, reinforces the growing affinity of Pakistani consumers towards adopting Korean beauty ideals into their skincare routines.

This shift in beauty preferences reflects a broader trend observed on Daraz. Hassan, highlighting the substantial surge in interest and engagement for Korean products, emphasises the consistent growth in this segment. Daraz has responded by expanding its product assortment to cater to the demand for Korean products in Pakistan: a simple keyword search for the word “Korean” results in 54,524 items.

While entertainment and the pursuit of flawless skin are shared cultural aspects, the divergence between Korea and Pakistan becomes apparent in their culinary preferences. In a nation celebrated for its love of biryani and nihari, the novelty of hotpot stands out as a unique addition rather than a reflection of shared emotional connections.

The interest towards Korean cuisine started with one simple food: noodles. “I have noticed that teenagers, in particular, are addicted to Korean noodles. Even though the popular Samyang noodles cost around Rs 500 a pack, it has become a comfort buy for teenagers,” says influencer Zulekha Ahmed. “Friends get together and compete as to who can take the heat of the 3× Spicy Noodles.” Instagram reels of people unboxing, cooking and splurging on these noodles have contributed to their popularity, she adds, explaining how Korean cuisine first started making its way into Pakistan.

After noodles came the wave of hotpot places, one of the most popular ones being the Chinese restaurant Wang Wang in Karachi. Chinese restaurants with wontons and chow mein have been around since rotary phones. Hotpots belong to Chinese as well as Korean culture, but are popular because love for all things Korean is the trend. For example, wait times at Wang Wang in Karachi range from one to three hours. Even though the per head cost at most hotpot places is not less than Rs 3000, kids and teenagers love hanging out over noodles and a spicy broth. Another aspect of Korean cuisine popularised by restaurants is Korean live BBQ, with a grill at each table.

In a country of chutneys and achars, kimchi has also claimed a foothold. Kimchi is a fermented dish made with vegetables, primarily cabbage or radishes, along with various seasonings. The fermentation process involves preserving the vegetables rather than allowing them to rot. The method was developed to store vegetables for an extended period, especially during the harsh winter months when fresh vegetables were scarce.

“Kimchi was unheard of in Karachi, but home-based businesses like Ohmami, have made this Korean staple item available,” says Ahmed. Other than niche businesses, kimchi is also available in bottled form at places like the bakery, Pie in the Sky. This shift in culinary preferences is part of a broader trend influenced by popular media. As an influencer, Ahmed observes the impact of popular entertainment on shaping tastes extends beyond food. It transcends into consumer behaviour, influencing shopping preferences across Pakistan.

In the evolving landscape of fads, the Korean wave has not only conquered the realms of entertainment but has also left a mark on beauty regimens, culinary delights, and shopping habits. The influence is undeniable, from the mesmerising narratives of K-dramas to the allure of K-pop beats. As Pakistanis embrace the subtleties of the ‘glass skin’ trend and savour the heat of Korean noodles, it is evident that the fusion of cultures continues to impact the preferences of a nation captivated by the charm of all things Korean.

Fatima S. Attarwala heads Dawn’s Business & Finance desk.