Banana milk is a popular Korean beverage. As the name implies, it's banana
flavored milk. Banana milk, along with chocopie
s and matdongsan
, is part of Korea's Holy Snacking Trinity. Binggrae
is the best known manufacturer of banana milk and the beverage's originator.
The beverage first hit Korean store shelves in 1974. In the '70s Koreans were not a particularly well nourished people and the government encouraged local milk production/consumption. Asians are not traditionally big on dairy, owing to a high prevalence of lactose intolerance
. Adult dairy
consumption is an adaptation traceable to Northern Europeans and places where winters are long and milk products end up being one of the few foods available.
Genetically Koreans have a strong Mongolian
background and many can tolerate dairy, although much of their food comes from Japanese
cultural roots, which means a lot of stir fry and soup. Cheese and milk doesn't stir fry
well and no one but the dastardly
French -- with their long waxy mustaches and desires to thwart freedom with their big double deck airplanes financed by outrageous government loans and their Magellan GPS
system which you just know they'll turn over to Arab terrorists -- seem to enjoy cheese in their soup. ("But the Tibetans like to put butter in their tea..." "The Tibetans will soon be called to account for their crimes too!"
No. Milk and milk products work best in a culture that bakes and Koreans don't bake
But there's no denying if you're raising cows and you're not taking advantage of cow milk, you're letting an important and nutritious food source go to waste.
So the Korean government gave the thumbs up to dairy production. The problem with milk is to the Korean palette milk tasted weird. It's hard to imagine someone dunking a chocolate chip cookie
in an ice cold glass of fresh milk
and proclaiming the taste repellant. But then no Korean could imagine a person putting some slimy kimchi
in his mouth and spitting it out proclaiming "I didn't think any fermented cabbage
product could be more disgusting than sauerkraut
but now I know I've been wrong all these long years. Holy shit, do you Koreans really eat this stuff?"
The Binggrae company (founded in 1969) got the idea to add banana flavoring to the milk. Koreans go bananas for bananas. And they packaged it in a funky stubby little bottle that resembled to some a hand grenade
and to others a traditional kimchi pot. The adult generation in the '70s were still dairy avoiders but the kids loved it. It was sweet and the grenade-like packaging was hard to resist. Vendors with their tubs filled with ice and bottles of banana milk became common place at fairs and parks. In the same way a North American has a childhood filled with sweet memories of the day their crappy, cheap parents crowbarred a buck out of their wallets to splurge on a corn dog
, Koreans have many a fond memory of their parents buying them a bottle of icy cold banana milk at the park.
Banana milk eventually became the number one product sold in Korean convenience store
s. Banana milk out sold cigarette
s and if you know Koreans, that's a most astounding claim.
However, not all was good for Binggrae in this banana milk republic. Banana milk sales went soft in the late '80s and early '90s. As Korea entered the world as a fully modern nation, banana milk seemed very dated and old fashioned. Michael Jackson
sure didn't drink no fuckin' banana milk. A guy drinking a banana milk and munching a chocopie was as dated as a North American guy eating quiche
while wearing his Miami Vice inspired wardrobe and listening to Jan Hammer
, like anyone ever listened to Jan Hammer. No, the hip Korean was drinking a little can of Pepsi and munching down a Dunkin' Donuts
jelly (banana filling).
Then a curious thing happened. The chaebol
s and government policy trashed the Korean economy and the IMF
had to step in to save the whole ball of wax. Korea, which was a rising tiger, felt humiliated before the world, having to go hat-in-hand to a world body. Oddly this had a positive effect for the Binggrae corporation. Banana milk sales shot up. In times of economic uncertainty, Koreans tend to retreat into tradition. Banana milk, which once seemed old, now seemed like a reminder of better times, a time when Korea was growing economically.