It’s been a while, but don’t worry I HAVE been eating. I’ve been eating all over the place. I have Busan, Chuncheon, Ansan, and even Texas in my backlog right now but I’ve just been slow in getting my butt in front of a computer and writing it all down.
While busyness and laziness both have a big part to play in this, I think another big reason is that, to be honest, Seoul food-blogging is really not as fun as Sydney food blogging. It’s hard to articulate exactly why this is, but I think a lot of it has to do with the difference between Sydneysiders’ and Seoulites’ attitude towards food.
In Sydney, we care a lot about authenticity, originality, and the passion that goes into putting food on a plate. Our affection for good food goes deep. It makes people quit their jobs and then cry about how much food means to them on national television. We care about what goes into our food, and the stories behind it. We line up for food, and we’re not ashamed of it. We pay a lot of money for good food, and we understand that it’s totally worth it. We cook, we serve, and we eat for the love.
In Korea, when it comes to food, there is really only one thing that matters: “DOES IT TASTE GOOD OR NOT?” This one-dimensional approach to food is even reflected in the language. When you watch Korean cooking competitions on TV, the judge’s comments are all incredibly boring and useless because there is only one piece of vocabulary that people use to describe the quality of food: “맛있어” which literally translates to “there is taste.” When something tastes bad, you just reverse that to “맛없어” which translates to “there is no taste.” So that’s the only thing people really care about, is there, or is there not, taste?
As a result, there is A LOT of tasty food in Korea. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find food that doesn’t taste good. It’s a lot harder to find food that is thoughtful, inventive (but not gimmicky), and that cares about details like authenticity, balance of flavours, textures, and quality of produce. Yeah I know I sound mad snobby right now. Don’t get me wrong, the food in Korea is GREAT for eating, and I have two new chins to prove it. But for discussing, reflecting upon, and blogging about… there isn’t much substance and so, it’s harder to find the inspiration. That’s all I’m saying.
Anyway, this post wasn’t intended to be a philosophical musing about Korean food culture… I actually just wanted to do a simple write-up on the time when me and my girl MJ visited Tongin Market (통인시장) earlier this year.
Tongin Market is a smaller market located next to Gyeongbok Palace, and is just a short walk up from Tosokchon. The market is one long under-cover alley that attracts both tourists (us) and elementary school kids (pictured) because of it’s unique payment system
At the entrance, you will meet a man with big stack of dosirak (lunch box) trays and gold tokens shaped like old Korean money.
These tokens are the official currency of Tongin Market and you can buy a stack of 10 for 5,000 won. Once you have your tokens and tray, you are now ready to construct your own dosirak!
There are plenty of vendors in the market with all different kinds of banchan (side dishes). From classics like kimchi, pickles, and nameul.
To favorites like ddokbokgi, odeng, jeon, and kimbap.
To really anything and everything that your hungry heart desires. They even have more substantial dishes like galbi-jjim (beef short ribs) and jay-yook-bokkum (spicy pork). Each spoonful of banchan will cost you at least two tokens, and larger-size, meatier things will cost you more. Luckily, the vendors don’t trade exclusively in tokens, so if you run out, you can just pay in cash. Whats the point of even having the token system then? The point is FUN, guys. Coz it’s way more fun to pay for stuff with gold tokens than it is paying with cash… (right?)
One thing that seemed really popular with the kids was this “gireum ddokbokgi” (oil-fried rice cake), which is a simpler, “dry” version of traditional ddokbokgi that just fries the rice cakes in oil and gochujang, giving them a crusty, crunchy coating on the outside.
After you fill up your dosiraks, you can head to one of two eating halls where you can get your cutlery, water, and rice (which you need to buy for 1,000 won). The main one upstairs was full, so we went to the one in the basement which was huge and had plenty of seats.
Here is what our 20 tokens (and a few extra 1,000 wons because I got greedy) bought us:
Clockwise from top left: Jang-jorim (soy-braised beef brisket and quail eggs), gyeran mari (Korean egg roll), fish jeon, mozzarella sticks (unconventional, but I’m a big sucker for these), seaweed salad, getnip jeon (stuffed perilla leaf) and rice cake sausages.
Clockwise from top left: getnip jeon (we got one each… stuffed perilla leaf jeon is the best jeon), mayak kimbap (same “drug kimbap” that you find at Gwangjang market), janchi guksu (Korean noodles with anchovy broth), zucchini jeon, gireum dookbokgi (the oil-fried rice cakes I mentioned above) and ham + crabmeat jeon.
We were really excited about this place because it looked like a lot of fun, and it was our first time visiting, but food-wise, it was just okay. We spent a lot of time walking from vendor to vendor, stressing over what to include in our lunch boxes, so by the time we sat down to eat, everything was cold. We were also incredibly hungry and I think that led us to not making the smartest choices in what we ended up buying. It would have been more interesting if we had been more adventurous and tried new things instead of our old favourites (I mean, egg roll and mozzarella sticks?! What was I thinking?!)
The gireum ddokbokgi was good, but the jeon is FAR better at Gwangjang market. Actually, a lot of the food here kinda tastes like it’s been sitting around all day. It’s a decent feed for around 5,000 won per person, but if you only have time to visit a couple of markets in Seoul, this one definitely ranks below Gwangjang and Noryangjin. On the plus side, it’s one of the few places you can go that offers a “banchan buffet” and you can eat all your favourites without having to wait until your next extended family gathering. Located right next to the palace, it’s also an easy stop to add to your walking tour of Seoul, though I’d recommend visiting in the warmer months when the cold air won’t make your food taste like leftovers straight out of the fridge.