Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gwangjang Market: Seoul's quirky foodie paradise

Yuka Suzuki, 22, smiled from ear to ear as she looked around the Gwangjang Market in Jongno, Seoul, two days before Seollal or Lunar New Year’s Day and shared her happiness about the food and the market.

The Gwangjang Market, one of the oldest and largest traditional outdoor marketplaces in Seoul, does indeed provide a memorable scene that would be unforgettable to foreigners: People sitting in air-tight comfort on the endless rows of food stalls in the middle of the marketplace and joyfully devouring the hundreds of options they have in food and drinks.

The market has a special place in the hearts of Koreans too, who can’t stop coming to this friendly and playfully chaotic place that doubles as a heaven for food lovers.
People sit shoulder-to-shoulder at a food stall at Gwangjang Market in Jongno, Seoul, enjoying food, drinks and friendly conversation with their companions.                                            / Korea Times photos by Yun Suh-young

Overview of the market 
The market is always bustling with people and the crowd was especially large on the Friday before the Lunar New Year’s holidays began.

The long lines of people buying ``bindaetteok,’’ or fried Korean pancakes, and ``mayak’’ (drug) gimbab, or small seaweed rolls nicknamed for their addictiveness, was comparable to the giant parking lot that has become of Korean highways.

While the market has always been popular, the recent airing of a television documentary that highlighted the daily realities of the merchants here has further elevated its status as a leisure destination.

 “It was fun to recognize the shop owners who I’ve seen on television. It made the visit more interesting,” said Yoo So-yeon, a visitor in her 20s. 

On television, the market was described as warm, lively and, to borrow an expression Koreans frequently use, ``human-like.’’ When visiting in person, the market is even more of an upbeat experience.

Here, the energy and optimism of the hard-working shop owners seem contagious. Whether it’s the gathering of friends, families or total strangers squeezed side by side in their favorite food stall, the overall atmosphere of the market always seem high-spirited. It’s where people can arrive alone but never be alone, sharing their happiness, worries and dilemmas over light-hearted rounds of soju.
A shop owner flips “bindaetteok,” or fried Korean pancakes, in a sizzling pan.

Food galore

The market offers a broad range of items for shoppers, from clothing to household tools and machinery, but it’s always the food that stands out most.

The dozens of food stalls packing the central road of the market cook most of their food on the spot and visitors will find the sizzling sounds and delicious smells stamped in their memories for some time.

Some of the popular delights are bindaetteok, mayak gimbab, kimchi mandu, or steamed dumplings with meat and kimchi. More familiar Korean street food like tteokbokki (rice cakes in red-pepper sauce), soondae (Korean version of blood sausages), kalguksu (flat-noodles), jokbal (pork hocks) and hoe (raw fish) are also available.

The most popular food seems to be bindaetteok and the versions they sell here is famous for its crunchiness and rich flavor of mung beans, kimchi and bean sprouts that are all mixed in with the batter. This heart-stopping pancake pairs perfectly with makgeolli, or Korean rice wine.

It’s also a delight to watch the seasoned bindaetteok masters mix and fry the batch on the spot. Mung beans are ground with the traditional grinding stones, ``maetdol,’’ seasoned with salt and mixed with other ingredients before dumped upon a long and generously oiled frying pan.

Bindaetteok cost 4,000 won in all eateries. The two most famous bindaetteok eateries in the market are Soonheenae Bindaetteok and Bakganae Bindaetteok.

They are back to back, but visitors may confuse them to be one shop. In one of the many bindaetteok eateries, you might be lucky to find a drawing by director Tim Burton who scribbled on the wall of one of the shops when he visited here in December. The character resembles that from his movie “Corpse Bride.”

Bindaetteok used to be called “binjatteok” which means “pancakes for the poor.” While these types of pancakes were indeed popular for low-incomers during tougher times when they weren’t able to splurge on rice or meat, they now carry weight as a modern-day delicacy.

Another iconic Gwangjang Market food is the mayak gimbap. This small version of the ubiquitous seaweed roll consists of simple ingredients ― the seaweed skin, rice, reddish and carrots. Add a drizzle of sesame oil, though, and these rolls become magic in the mouth.

There are two major mayak gimbap eateries at the market although they can be found in almost all stores for their wide popularity. The Monyeo Gimbap is the wonjo, or the original, where the mayak gimbap was first started. It’s 500 won more expensive than in other stores just because it’s “the original.” But some find the non-original ones to taste better. The Jeukseok Mayak Gimbap is a rival, and it’s cheaper at 2,000 won.

The kimchi mandu is another recommended snack there. The Wonjo Kimchi Mandu offers the “original” spicy kimchi dumplings. The color of the mandu there is redder than others and is more transparent, meaning the red fillings can be seen through the dough skin. The mandu is made on the spot and steamed immediately after taking an order, a reason why they are so chewy and delicious. The mandu cost 5,000 won per plate.

An interesting fact is that the market sells no other types of mandu. It’s because several shops copied the original shop when it became so popular among customers, according to a merchant there.

One other interesting fact about the market is that it has so many “wonjo”s or shops that claim they are original, so it’s up to the customers to choose their own eatery depending on where they feel like eating.

How it began

The market is over 100 years old. Its birth dates back to 1904 when the Eulsa Treaty, or the Korea-Japan Protectorate Treaty was signed in the 14th year of King Gojong’s rule during the Joseon Kingdom.

Because Japan started to dominate the management of Namdaemun Market, several private investors decided to bring up the Korean market with their own money. They bought the land of the current market site and with 100,000 won in cash, they established the market.

The name Gwangjang comes from the location of the market situated between two bridges in Cheonggye Stream _ Gwanggyo and Janggyo. 

It became the first permanent market in Korea. At the time, markets were opened on two, three, five, or seven day intervals. In its early days, it mainly dealt with agricultural and fishery products but later grew to become one of the largest markets in Korea selling many other product categories. It now sells a variety of other products including clothing, beddings, home appliances and others. Visiting the non-food zone may also be interesting for first time visitors.

The market has over 5,000 shops with 20,000 employees in a 42,000 square-meter site. An estimate of 65,000 people visits the market every day.

Although the market is situated inside a building, it is basically an outdoor market because the eight entrances are always kept open even during the winter. So bundle up before heading there. But don’t worry about eating out in the cold. Most of the seats there are equipped with electric pads to keep your bottom warm.

One other thing: Don’t forget to bring cash when visiting the market because they might get angry at you if you hand them a card after eating a 3,000 won worth snack. Most of them don’t receive cards.

How to get there:

Take subway line no. 1 and get off at Jongno 5-ga and go out through exit no. 7 or 8.

Opening hours:

The eateries and food section opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. The fashion apparel section operates from 9 p.m. through 10 a.m. the following day.

For more information, visit or call 02-2267-0291.

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