[FOUNTAIN]The doughnut barometer

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[FOUNTAIN]The doughnut barometer

McDonald’s hamburgers and bungeobbang, or fish-shaped doughnuts, have more in common than just being affordable eat-out items. They are good indicators of how bad the economy is.
The price of McDonald’s hamburgers has been shown to decline in an economic downturn. An economic slump lowers consumers’ purchasing power; therefore, a decline in spending on these inexpensive food items is a telling indicator of the economy’s health. In Japan last year, the price of the cheapest McDonald’s hamburger fell to 59 yen from 80 yen as the economy languished in a more-than-decade-long slump.
The same is true of fish-shaped doughnuts. In a bad economy with a dismal unemployment rate, the easiest business one can start is selling these doughnuts or sweet potatoes roasted in a steel barrel. These street businesses demand an initial investment of 500,000 won ($400) to 600,00 won. Rather than spending thousands of won to eat out, people would rather pay 1,000 won for four doughnuts.
No one knows for sure where these snacks came from. But the general consensus is that they originated during Japanese colonial rule. Some say the origin is the Japanese taiyaki, or sea bream-shaped snacks developed by a family of restaurateurs in the 19th century.
The way they are made is almost the same: pouring batter into fish-shaped molds and leaving them on a grill for several minutes. The only difference is that the Japanese taiyakis were slightly larger and flatter.
The fish-shaped doughnuts were most popular in the dark days of Korean history: during the Korean War and the financial crisis in the late 1990s. The snacks, hot and cheap, consoled those who were short of food and out of work. The doughnuts now come in all shapes, but fish-shaped ones are unbeatable.
Street vendors say that machines for making fish-shaped doughnuts are selling like hotcakes. Most of the buyers are believed to be unemployed young adults, who buy them on the Internet.
The Blue House and National Assembly are long on talk but short on remedies for the weak economy. Watching a young man busily flipping over a fish-shaped doughnut mold reminds me of a joke.
Q: If they were to change jobs, what would fish-shaped doughnut sellers become?
A: Why, politicians of course. Because both are experts at “flipping.”


by Lee Kyu-youn

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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