Food alleys: Gwangjang Market
Mar 19, 2012
First established in 1905, Gwangjang Market is Korea’s oldest remaining daily market. It can be found east of downtown Seoul, not far from Dongdaemun Market. Although not as well known among foreign tourists as the markets in Dongdaemun and Namdaemun, many vendors from both those markets come to Gwangjang Market to buy their products. The market has an extensive selection of vendors offering silks, tailored Hanbok, and second-hand clothes.
But Gwangjang Market is most famed for its food selection. Running through the heart of the market are two crisscrossing corridors stuffed full of booths, stalls, and storefronts offering a variety of Korean street foods. The market is a bustle of activity and loud noise, but once a newcomer gets over the sensory overload it is quite a warm, welcoming place.
“Gwangjang Market's main attractions are the varieties of traditional foods and the very warm people-y feel,” said Shin Jaeeun, a 21-year-old Yonsei University student. “I'd passed by Gwangjang Market numerous times on my way to school but looks are definitely deceiving. Never would I have imagined a whole other culture that gives off such a traditional vibe.”
Korean workers flock to the market all year round to sit at the benches lining each of the booths and sample the foods. It is enjoyable all year round thanks to the glass roof added to the market in 2005 to protect the stalls from rain and snow. Even during the coldest days of winter, the amount of food being cooked in this steam-filled passageway staves off the cold. Despite the occasional improvements to the facilities, the market maintains an atmosphere that has mostly gone unchanged over the past century.
Among the featured delicacies, visitors can find bindaetteok, mayak kimbap, soondae, pigs’ feet, bibimbap, and various others as well, all offered alongside bottles of makgeolli or soju.
Bindaetteok is a type of flat cake made of mung beans. The mung beans are ground up in constantly revolving stone pestles, churning out a thick paste which is then mixed with bean sprouts, green onions, and garlic and poured into a fryer. What comes out is a thick, crispy disc with the texture of hash browns, but the taste is certainly different.
The first recorded mention of bindaetteok comes from the Eumshik dimibang, a Korean cookbook written around 1670. It was originally a food for commoners who couldn’t afford meat. It is also known by the name nokdujeon.
In Gwangjang Market, bindaetteok has been available for as long as anyone can remember. The women working in Bakgane Bindaetteok laugh when asked when their restaurant opened. “Long ago,” answers one.
Bakgane Bindaetteok occupies a stand in the center of the main intersection, where a team of middle-aged Korean women produces mountains of bindaetteok as quickly as possible and hands out free samples to passersby. Some diners sit at benches surrounding the booth, but there is also a two-story restaurant in one of the adjacent buildings offering additional seating to those who want to get out of the bustle of the market.
Across the way, another one of the market’s best-known treasures can be found: Mayak Kimbap, or “Narcotic Kimbap.” But there are no illegal drugs in these tightly wrapped rolls: their name comes from how addictive they are. Stuffed with carrot, pickled daikon radish, and rice that has been seasoned with sesame oil, this variation of kimbap differs from other kinds in that it’s made in smaller, bite-sized pieces. It is served with mustard and soy sauce to give it a tangy edge over other types of kimbap.
One of the other main signature dishes of Gwangjang Market is soondae, which is made from cow or pig intestines that have been stuffed with various ingredients, usually cellophane noodles, barley, and pork blood. The history of this dish goes back to cookbooks written in the 19th century, and it is one of the most popular street foods across the Korean Peninsula.
Often found alongside soondae is pigs’ feet, known as jokbal in Korean. The process of preparing and cooking pigs’ feet is very time-consuming, as all hair must be removed and the feet must be washed thoroughly and boiled until tender. It is sliced and served on a platter alongside saeujeot, a fermented shrimp sauce.
The market also offers its own variation of another popular Korean delicacy, bibimbap, a basic dish that mixes rice with pepper paste and an assortment of vegetables. Unlike most other bibimbap restaurants, the vendors here add in barley rice. Customers get to hand-pick which vegetables end up in their metal bowls, and the vendors are not stingy with refills of rice and pepper paste.
The selection of foods is daunting, and one could eat lunch there every day of the week and not have the same thing twice. At peak hours around meal times, it can be difficult finding a seat, and visitors might have to get used to sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. The heavy foot traffic in the narrow passages between stalls may feel overwhelming, but the trade-off is the lively culture of the market.
“It was the perfect way to wind down after a long first week of school with good food and good company, and I was able to experience the famous generosity of traditional Korean storeowners,” said Shin Jaeeun.
The food stands are open seven days a week, usually from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. However, the clothing and fabric stores tend to close every Sunday. The market is most easily reachable from exits 7 and 8 of Jongno 5-ga Station. You can visit the official website for the market.
By Jon Dunbar
Department Global Communication and Contents Division