Gwangjang Market part 1: The good

Much of modern Seoul is a fast paced, concrete jungle of fashionable mega stores and consumer electronics. Over priced coffee and fast food culture has become the norm and you’re never more than a stone’s throw from a telecommunications store, scoop of ice cream and a baguette.

The comfort and familiarity that comes from living here for over a year now has at times made it a challenge to uncover what makes this metropolis unique to any other big city… besides kimchi of course.

I set out to find the Korea of the common man and found it at the Gwangjang Market, now my favorite place to eat street food. My friend the internet, with some assistance from the Korea Herald, has a lot to say about the long history of one of the nation’s first and largest traditional markets, originally focused on silks, textiles and hanboks. Established in 1905, it was the first market in Korea to trade every single day. In recent times though, the market took a big hit with the emergence of the mega department store culture in Korea.

But the opening of Cheonggyecheon in 2005, as well as the addition of a roof allowing it to remain open rain or shine, has made the market relevant once again. Currently, the sale of cultural draperies, bedding and fabrics still exists. More importantly, a lot of people are repeat customers because of the supposed cheap, traditional street food. More on that in part 2.

After an afternoon of hiking at Inwangsan, we descended the mountain with one thing on our minds… food. Hearing that the market is supposed to be a great place to experience the real Korea, as well as dine on some of the best street food around, we walked from Sajik Park through Gwanghwamun, then along Cheonggecheon down to the market.

After entering the market and finding ourselves in an ocean of bedding, we went straight for the intersection of food stalls and delicious sights and smells on the far side that I can best describe as food alley. On our way, we were fortunate enough to witness an altercation. For some reason, motorcycles and scooters find it appropriate to drive anywhere and everywhere in Korea, including inside the tight walkways of this market. To a foreigner, it may seem absurd, maybe disrespectful. But because it is so common, it’s easy to assume that Koreans just accept this aggressiveness as normal everyday activities…. that is until you see one of them snap. I’ve written about the intensity of Korean people, and this was a prime demonstration of just that.

Gwangjang Brawl

We didn’t actually see what initiated all the commotion, but it’s easy to hypothesize. Motorcycle guy was too close to shorty, seen throwing blows in the picture. Maybe he was nudging him, trying to push his motorized way through the crowd… and shorty had finally had enough of it. It’s my observation that a lot of these Korean altercations are all show and no substance, which was the case with this situation. Little guy was given the opportunity to rush motorcycle guy, but he conveniently found his way behind the others that were attempting to break it up. Behind them all, he’s acting tough so they would continue hold him back. Motorcycle guy half-assed holding a pipe over his head like he’s willing to use it, but you know he never would… and he didn’t. Meanwhile, this foreigner was starving, and walked undeterred through the middle of the mayhem to get closer to my food. Shortly after, the whole thing broke up.

The far end of the market is street food heaven. We found a food stall, sat down and ordered before taking any time to look around and compare what’s available. That can happen after we eat, and maybe we’ll find something new to try on our next visit. For this visit, we dined on bindaetteok and tteokbokki and it was phenomenal.

Bindaetteok is one of the many varieties of jeon, or Korean pancakes. Mung beans are ground and kneaded for use as the base and various veggies and sprouts are added before frying. It’s chopped and served with a vinegary soy sauce that has large chunks of onions for dipping. Tteokbokki is the Korean mac and cheese. Spongy rice cakes simmered in hot pepper sauce that’s eaten regularly by everyone.

Finally feeling the nourishment we were dreaming of since hiking around the mountain, we walked around the food area to see what else was going on. Readily available are sundae (blood sausage), all kinds of pig parts including snouts, feet, lungs and liver, raw fish and octopus, hand made mandu and soups, gimbap, pumpkin and red bean porridge, what looked like delicious bibimbap, and the cold noodle dishes that Koreans love so much in the warmer months.

On our way out of the market we noticed more varieties of the pancakes, and decided to pick a few up to accompany our dinner of dak dori tang at home. We grabbed a spicy kimchi jeon from one stall, and waited in line for a good 15 minutes to get a few that turned out to be more like pork hamburgers. I’ve found in this city that it pays to join a line full of locals, as it typically results in a quality street food experience.

It was a little on the intense side as this tall, foreigner with facial hair and aviator shades drew the attention, and by the end I think the respect, of the locals by not getting pushed around, not allowing others to cut the line, and politely demanding my delicious grit just like everyone else. I couldn’t tell if the middle aged Korean man standing a few places behind me was poking fun, propping me up or innocently commenting on my presence, but he was obviously talking about me to anyone and everyone that would listen. My usual way of handling this frequent situation is to stare back with a slight smile on my face, and not breaking the awkwardness until I get a response. This process usually results in the perpetrator giving quick glances from me to the floor about 3-4 times. It gives the impression that I know what they are saying (even though I don’t) and I’m not going to look away until I get some sort of acknowledgment in return. And when I get that acknowledgment, I toss a wave and a “How you doing?”, Tony Soprano style in their direction, which is greeted with a smile 90% of the time. In this case, dude made sure I was the next one in line to get service. Maybe out of respect for standing up for myself, maybe to show a foreigner a good experience, maybe to get this crazy foreigner out of the line, either way is OK with me.

That night, we heated the kimchi jeon and one of the pork pancake/hamburger things in the oven. Along with the dak dori tang, it was a solid meal. However, the next morning, we took it to the next level by frying the pork in the pan and topping it with scrambled eggs. Accompanied by the banana ceylon tea we picked up in Hanoi, it was the best breakfast I’ve had in a long time.

This first trip to Gwangjang Market was delicious, eventful, and a bit challenging… I’ll call it a good visit. The pushy motorcycle driver altercation and the awkward pork line incident wasn’t enough to call it anything otherwise. Perhaps those encounters are what you must endure in order to experience the real Korea of the common man. However our visit the next day, grabbing a quick bite before taking in the Lotus Lantern Parade… we’ll call it a not so good visit.

More on that in Gwangjang Market part 2: The not so good.

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on May 24, 2010.

One Response to “Gwangjang Market part 1: The good”

  1. […] Market part 2: The not so good We enjoyed our first experience at Gwangjang Market so much that we returned the next day for a quick bite before the Lotus Lantern Parade. […]

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