I’ve been in Seoul for about a month now and when people ask me “So what have you been up to?” the only true answer I can give apart from “Settling in” is “Eating”. THERE IS SO MUCH FOOD HERE. The only word I can find to properly describe the Seoul food scene is “Overwhelming”. I honestly cannot think of any city in the world more obsessed with food than Seoul.
I mean, Sydney-siders LOVE food and our food scene is pretty alive – any Sydney foodie will probably have about 10-20 restaurants/cafes in their to-eat list. But Seoul is just… another world altogether. Like, there’s no point making a to-eat list here because it’ll need to have hundreds of restaurants on it. I don’t know many people who love food as much as I do and even for me… the number of restaurants in this city gives me a headache. If you walk through popular areas like Itaewon or Gangnam you will see street after street after street of just restaurants and cafes and bars next to each other, on top of each other… it’s crazy.
And it stresses me out! I mean, a normal person wouldn’t be bothered by it – but as I walk through these areas all I can think is “Wow that place looks good! And that place! And that’s a cute cafe! Ooh Thai food – wonder if it’s any good! Look, there’s pho! Oh that place looks popular – and that one looks busy too! I need to try that one – and that one, and that one too! I think that place is pretty famous… need to come back here, and there, and here, and over there, and — *EXPLODES*”
Lucky for me, I’m here long-term so at least I’m not time pressured. I potentially have years to explore everything. But what if you’re here in Seoul just to visit – where do you even start?
Let me be your guide. Put the trendy cafes and fine dining to the side for the moment, and I’ll show you a place where you’ll find the history and the heart of Korean food.
This is Gwangjang market – one of the oldest markets in Seoul. It’s been here since 1905, and is home to more than 5,000 stores selling all sorts of things like fabric, bedding, traditional crafts and clothing. But the real attraction here is the food market – it’s almost like a museum with everything weird and wonderful about traditional Korean food on display.
You’ll find ladies selling dozens of varieties of unidentifiable Korean side dishes. Some appealing to the eye and some…
… not so much.
All sorts of dried fruit, traditional rice cakes, sweets and medicinal foods like ginseng.
More types of Kimchi than you’d know what to do with.
Seafood ranging from fresh sting-ray…
… to not-so-fresh dried fish.
And food that will test the boundaries of even the most adventurous foodie…
Blood jelly and appetisingly grey-coloured tripe.
Whole steamed pig’s head – oink.
The biggest blood sausage known to mankind.
For those not in the mood for ears, snout, intestines or blood – there’s plenty of more palatable food on offer. The markets are actually famous for a few things – the first thing we tried was their “Mayak Kimbab” which translates to Drug Seaweed Rice Roll. Like true tourists, we actually asked the ladies selling it where the name came from – and they told us that it’s because the rice rolls are addictive. Well, we’ll be the judge of that.
With stall after stall selling the same thing – how do you know which one is best? This is a rough guide – but I think it’s generally safe to go to the ones with signs and photos showing that they’ve been featured on some Korean TV show or news program – if they’re good enough for television, they’re good enough for me.
The rolls are very simple – just rice, carrot, yellow pickled radish wrapped in seaweed and sprinkled with some sesame seeds and oil dipped in a mustard and vinegar sauce. I suppose they are addictive in the way that simple salty things are addictive – like popcorn and potato chips.
You can wash it all down with some tteokbokgi (rice cake in spicy sauce).
Next on the must-eat track is the bindaetteok, which is a savoury pancake made from ground mung beans and other ingredients like spring onions, beef, pork and maybe even kimchi. It’s fried on a hot plate in plenty of oil until it’s golden brown and irresistibly crispy. The mung beans make it taste so wholesome – it could almost be a health food if it wasn’t so deep fried.
The bindaetteok vendors also sell different varieties of “Jeon” – I don’t know what that translates to directly, but it is basically anything dusted in flour, and then egg, and then fried. From fish, to zucchini slices – even hot pepper paste (gochujang) can be turned into a Jeon! I associate Jeon with new years feasts with my whole family and it’s one of my favourite things – but cover anything in egg and I’ll be pleased.
We thought we’d try something different to eating at a stall, and went into one of the many small restaurants in the market. The place looked exactly like it probably looked in the 70s. We ordered a bindaetteok and assorted jeon which came with pickled onion and kimchi instead of dipping sauce.
On this plate there is fish jeon, kimchi pancake, chive pancake, sausage jeon, liver jeon, gochujang jean, seafood stick jeon, and stuffed chilli jeon. They’re not kidding when they say ‘assorted’ – makes me want to experiment with what else I can dip in flour, egg and fry – pork belly? banana? pumpkin?
There’s plenty of other things worth trying at Gwangjang market – too much for one visit and one stomach. It’s as Korean as street food gets – you won’t find any hot-dogs-on-a-stick here – everything is hand-made by a middle-aged lady wearing an apron, a tight perm and a grumpy expression. I can’t tell you that the food is made with love, but it’s made with sweat, toil and the trademark Korean battler spirit.
Gwangjang Market (광장시장)
You can access the market from Jongno 5-ga Station (Subway Line 1), Exits 7 and 8 or Euljiro 4-ga Station (Subway Line 2), Exit 4.