Travelling around Asia for the last few months we have seen our fair share of ‘traditional’ markets. Some examples deserve their traditional moniker; others would be best described as tourist traps. As the lure of the tourist dollar replaces traditional traders with those selling souvenirs, fake designer goods or other merchandise that has the sole purpose of emptying the tourists purse.
Although Seoul’s Namdaemun Market and Dongdaemun Market are interesting. We stumbled across a little gem of a market in the form of Kwangjang (or Gwangjang in some spellings).
The market sits between the Jongo 5 Subway station and the Cheonggyecheon stream. It is not the largest of markets but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in atmosphere, traditional food and, as we found, a tremendously warm welcome to the few tourists that do seek it out.
We returned to Seoul after visiting some other beautiful destinations around Korea to catch up on a few things. We booked a hotel in the Jongo area, where the market is located, and set out to see what delights it held on our first night back in Seoul.
The market is located in a block of lanes just off the Jongo main road literally opposite the entrance to Jongo 5 ga subway station, take exit 7 or 8. If you don’t like this place its only a short walk to the much more famous Dongdaemun market.
The market is really a tale of specialities of food and traditional dress making. The ground floor is dedicated to the supply of a whole host of Korean street foods. If you wander up one of the stairwells, you find around the lanes, you will be presented with the wonderful sight of stall upon stall of merchants selling traditional Korean clothes. You will find the merchants sat chatting to excited young couples planning their nuptuals looking through the catalogues to decide on what colour and design they want for their wedding attire in traditional Hanbok style. The traditional clothes are also worn at christenings and other celebrations, so you will also find lots of cute baby and toddler outfits too.
We were not planning to get our union blessed in Korea so we made an exit from these colourful stalls and made our way in search of the food. One reason why this place has been special for us is the manner in which you eat this traditional fare at the market. There are literally hundreds of stalls to choose from and most serve similar food divided into three main categories.
The market is famous for its signature dish bindaetteok (빈대떡). These are pancakes that are made from mung bean batter (you will see the beans being ground and mixed with the other ingredients before your eyes) mixed with vegetables and other ingredients then shallow fried in oil till crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.
They are served with the usual soy and onion mix and you make your way through them with your chopsticks while washing them down with an occasional sip of your Makgeolli. They were delicious and each vendor will do their own special twist on these and add different ingredients. We chose to eat at a ‘house’ with the longest queue. We learned that this is the most famous and reputedly the best, you won’t fail to miss it, just follow the crowds of locals.
If you like Offal you will like this
The second of the main stalls concentrate on offal. After polishing off our pancakes we made our way to another stall that was heaped with pig’s trotters, snouts, intestine, liver, and the thing that drew us to it, blood sausage. It is called sundae (순대) here, do not confuse this with the European sundae or you may be disappointed.
The sausage has some similarities to black pudding but it is steamed, not fried and has inside sticky rice, bean sprouts, onions, cabbage and is flavoured with ginger, sesame oil and garlic. It is served simply with a small saucer of seasoned salt. It was delicious. While we sat at this stall we got to see the vendor do her magic with all the other offal products that were on order. Most we were not quite brave enough to try, but as she went to work on the pig’s trotter I was tempted the meat looked very tasty.
After this plateful of sausage we were getting full, but pledged ourselves to return the next evening to work our way through some other treats on offer here.
It’s not Steak Tartar – It’s better!
One dish we had been saving ourselves to eat in a recommended eatery was the Yukhoe (육회). I used the wonders of foursquare to look at places that the locals were recommending around the market and managed to find one restaurant that seemed to have the most pictures and check ins. We were not disappointed. I think the owner may have appeared on TV, as she gestured to a large banner of herself above the door.
Yukhoe is a minced raw meat dish similar to European steak tartar though the taste of this knocks the socks off its European namesake. The finest cuts of meat are used (and have to be certified specially for use in this dish by Korean butchers following some health scares in Japan who eat a similar dish) and minced and marinated. The marinade consists of soy, salt, sesame oil, sugar, spring onion, garlic and black pepper. The meat is placed on strips of bae (Korean pear) and as a final flourish the dish is sprinkled with sesame seeds and pine nuts. A raw egg yolk is added to the top as it is served, alongside a clear soup and raw garlic and chilli to munch on in between the meat.
The market also serves a variety of seafood for you to try, but sadly we had eaten our fill on the two visits there so never had the opportunity to try these.
The Ambience and the Bonhomie
The best aspect of eating here were the Korean people we met. At every stall we ate, we were welcomed and without any English words being spoken we were able to order what we wanted and were shown how to eat the various dishes and what Kimchi goes best with each dish.
If you like your dining to be in private tables with no one around this place is not for you. You will sit shoulder to shoulder with whoever comes to dine in the same place. Every time we visited the place was packed so you will get to meet some people as you dine. We met Koreans who now live in America and were on their annual visit getting their fix of traditional food, a university professor out for a snack after work with his friend. He spoke English and French so we passed the half hour with him mostly conversing in French (it was good practise for me) he was fifty (but looked about 35) ran marathons and was passionate about French life and culture.
Probably the greatest treat though was meeting a real character who must be the campest guy in Korea. This guy sashayed in to the stall next to us, as these were the nearest available seats. He was quickly surrounded by a very eclectic mix of Korean men whom he entertained, slapped and generally minced and munched with for the next hour or so. I think somebody did mention he was either a celebrity or a singer, not too sure about those claims though!
He was a wonderful attention seeker and upped the performance as the drinks kicked in. John took the brunt of his comedy slaps and grabs. The guy was even more entertaining as he got more tipsy, nearly bringing the market traders to a stand still as they engaged in rapturous banter with him and his entourage. He was eager to pose for pictures, while his friends shared their food with us allowing us to sample some more treats from another stall. However, this was not an unusual experience for us in Korea as nearly everybody we have met has been very generous.
If you have a spare couple of hours and an empty stomach, and would like to meet and interact with some locals, take a wander down here and fill your belly and your mind with a truly wonderful Korean experience. Hang around long enough and you may hear a little bit of singing, as we’ve learned from our trip around South Korea, Korean’s like to sing a little.