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(Yonhap Feature) Army reality show brings nostalgic boom in military food sales

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Aug. 8 (Yonhap) -- In a country where all men must serve at least two years of military service, the strictly controlled life in the barracks is not a fun topic.

After the MBC reality show "Real Men," which depicts six male celebrities' struggles in army barracks, has became the talk of the town since the pilot aired in April, more Korean men have begun to share their own stories of military life while watching the clumsy celebrity soldiers in the show.

Not all memories bring back warm, fuzzy feelings for discharged soldiers, but some foods, especially after seemingly endless and intense workouts, are certain to evoke nostalgia.

On the second day of the televised boot camp, comedian Seo Kyung-suk almost cried out of joy when he encountered a military-style burger, which is jokingly called Gundaeria, a portmanteau of the Korean word for military, gundae, and the fast-food chain Lotteria. The 41-year-old Seo had already completed his service but returned to the army just for the popular TV program.

The recruits put together burger patties, ketchup, meat sauce and strawberry jam between buns, and eat.

It's not a Big Mac, but celebrity soldiers savor the taste of the odd combination of ingredients. Even Australian comedian Sam Hamington praised it.

After the show created a massive online buzz, marketers were quick to use the highest-rated Sunday evening program to entice audiences to get the taste of strange-but-surprisingly-tasty combat foods.

For viewers who want to make the military-style burger at home, South Korea's largest daily deal site, Ticket Monster, released "Gundaeria package" at 1,500 won (US$1.2) from May to June 6. For a week, over 22,400 items were sold.

"Not only the reservists who feel nostalgic about their military life but also young women who consider the food as unique and fun seemed to have bought the package," Kim Jung-hwa, Ticket Monster's manager, said.

The program even shed light on unappetizing combat foods by turning them into delicious snacks with a simple tweak in recipes.

During one episode, Park Hyung-sik, a 22-year-old boy-band member, learned how to make the biscuits, which are hard to swallow without water, into a bowl of cereal.

After crushing hardtacks with little star-shaped candies and pouring milk into the packet, Park suspiciously tries it and finds it surprisingly delicious. As a matter of fact, any food after hard training is so delicious to the young man with characteristic fast metabolism.

"Certainly, everything I eat in the military is very delicious," baby-faced Park emphatically told one of his seniors.

According to local retail chain Lotte Mart, the sales of hardtacks have increased 25.7 percent from mid-April to early July compared to the same period a year ago. Several snack manufacturers have begun to sell military-style hardtacks, along with the recipe.

On a Sunday night after watching the TV show, Lee Sang-eun, a 31-year-old who was discharged from military 10 years ago, cooked up the military-style ramen called "ppogri" at home.

Instead of cooking instant noodle in a bowl or having a cup ramen, he just poured hot water into the ramen plastic packaging to make the so-called ppogri. It doesn't need a bowl or a gas stove. Just pour hot water into the plastic packaging, wait three minutes and stir.

"I remember I had ppogri on my first leave because I really liked eating it after my night-shift," Lee said . "Of course, I don't want to go back to rigid military life and have food on a tray every day. Sometimes, though, I miss snacks after training."

   Although some combat foods sold online may look somewhat disgusting from the pictures, marketers say the nostalgic value has more than made up for it. Plus, it's vacation time, and campers like foods that can be easily prepared without many utensils or gears.

"As TV programs related to military life have gained in popularity, military foods such as hardtack and combat foods have been selling," said Kim Hyun-joon, a food manager at Gmarket, the country's top online retailer. "The demand is expected to rise during the vacation season as military foods, which are easy to carry and store, are convenient for outdoor activities."