Trader Joe’s sold out of kimbap, its latest viral offering, thanks to TikTok
Trader Joe’s sold out of kimbap, but it's inadvertently given Korean grocers increased visibility.
Sarah Ahn still remembers being mocked when her mother packed a Korean staple for her lunch at a predominantly white school in Orange County, California. Now a food blogger and digital creator, she has contributed to it becoming a viral hit — to the point that it’s sold out nationwide in Trader Joe’s, where it made its mainstream American debut last month.
The food? The humble Korean kimbap. Traditionally it’s made with rice (bap) and bulgogi (beef) or fishcake, omelet-style egg, pickled radish, carrots, spinach all seasoned individually (sauteed with sesame oil and soy sauce or both) and rolled into seaweed (kim, hence kimbap) that’s brushed with sesame oil. While quick and convenient to eat on the go, it’s prepared with ingredients at room temperature and meant to be eaten the same day.
So when kimbap arrived in a new and puzzling form — frozen — at Trader Joe’s in early August, it was a novelty even to people who grew up with it, since freezing and heating the roll would normally mangle the texture of the different ingredients. Curious tasters from all backgrounds uploaded their takes on social media, especially TikTok, causing it to sell out within a couple of weeks — and causing a nationwide shortage until Oct. 31 at least. Ahn’s, with almost 11 million views on the platform, may have been the most influential one.
“My other viral videos that I have on my TikTok and Instagram were about me being bullied for kimbap when I was 5 years old. Now it’s being sold at Trader Joe’s and sold out. That says a lot about how far we’ve come to have our culture be seen by others and accepted and consumed. It’s a crazy shift,” Ahn, 27, said. “Social media has definitely magnified the ability for different cultures and cuisines to be shared across the world.”
In her video, Ahn brings home the frozen kimbap, which surprises her mother, and they microwave it and try it together. Initially cautiously, both declare, “It’s not bad.” Then her mother, Nam Soon (who initially didn’t realize she was being recorded), said it’s better than what’s sold at the Korean grocery store.