Whenever you visit another country, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of sampling the local cuisine. It is through this culinary experience that many people first become familiar with a culture and all of its rich traditions. So ditch the McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and all the other Western imports and head to the restaurants and food stalls that the locals frequent.
I love Asian cuisine and Korean cooking is among my favorites. Although Korean food is quite distinctive, it does share some common features with other Asian cultures. It ranges from the very spicy to the salty to the almost bland. Most all traditional meals are accompanied by a soup or stew, rice and three side dishes, what we call okazu (おかず) in Japan.
One of the best places to sample the local cuisine and to get a real taste for the local culture is in Seoul’s Gwangiang Market, the oldest traditional market in existence today.
Established in 1905, Gwangjang Market is just east of downtown Seoul, not far from Dongdaemun Market. Although not as well known among foreign tourists as the markets in Dongdaemun and Namdaemun, it contains over 5,000 shops and stalls selling everything from food, textiles, silk, linens, bed sheets, and more. However, it is the food selection for which Gwangiang is highly regarded. Running through the heart of the market are two crisscrossing corridors packed with booths, stalls and storefronts offering a wide variety of Korean street foods. The market is a bustle of activity and loud noise and quite a sensory overload for the first time visitor!
The market is bustling with visitors all year round thanks to the glass roof that was installed in 2005 to protect the stalls from rain and snow. Despite the occasional improvements to the facilities, the market maintains an atmosphere that has mostly gone unchanged for the past century it seems.
Among the local fare featured here is the bindaetteok, gimbap, soondae, pigs’ feet and bibimbap. Bindaetteok is a Korean style pancake made from mung beans, kimchi, green onions and peppers fried in oil until it is golden brown. Gimbap, I was told is the most beloved South Korean food. It consists of a sheet of seaweed filled with rice, a few pickled veggies and a slice of egg. Soondae (pronounced Sundae) is a blood sausage of sorts made from cow or pig intestines stuffed with various ingredients including cellophane noodles, barley and pork blood. The delicacy appeared in cookbooks written in the 19th century and it is one of the most popular street foods across the Korean Peninsula. Finally, there is bibimbap. So popular, that you can even get it in Japan! In Gwangjang it is made using barley as well as rice. Measured amounts of sesame oil, gochujang (chili paste) and doenjang (soy bean paste) are added with lettuce, spring onions, dried seaweed, cherry tomatoes and a great little peppery, grassy, bitter leaf. The dish is all about balanced flavors and freshness.
After you have finished eating you can head to the second floor. Here you will find all sorts of textiles, quilts, bed sheets and traditional Korean outfits known as hanbok.
Hours of operation vary by store. Generally, stores are open 9:00 AM -6:00 PM. Some stores open as early as 7:00 AM and close as late as 7:00 PM. With the exception of clothing and food stalls, most stores are closed on Sundays. The food stands stay open from 11:00 AM – 11:00 PM.
Experiencing Korean street food is a must for any visitor to Seoul. Persuasive food stall owners will try their best to get you to sit down at their stall, but the best advice is to pick a stall when you find something that looks appetizing.