Ascending to the top of Jongno-5 station, the flood of people quickly becomes more dense than usual, no matter the time or day. Locals of all ages shuffle around as moving too quickly will result in a collision. The smell of street food is strong, with the pavement roasting in the sun, and the chatter of hundreds can be heard the moment you breach that top subway step.
Welcome to Gwangjang Market, one of Korea’s oldest and largest traditional markets. The X-shaped market has two main alleyways that run the length of a football field, give or take. Twisting and peeling off the two main pathways, shops selling quality silk goods, traditional Korean attire (hanboks), and handmade goods are everywhere. Everything is so tightly packed, the amount of color, food, attainable goods, and things you can see aren’t even fathomable.
Gwangjang is also well known for its street food. The greenhouse-like overhang keeps patrons dry even on wet days, meaning the food is always being prepared and served at impressive speeds. Authentic dishes like tteokbokki, rice rolls covered in a spicy red chili sauce, can be seen stewing about stall after stall. The ghastly looking soondae, or Korean blood sausage, is also very common, visually reminding me of something out of John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” Other favorites like gimbap, bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), and fresh seafood are plentiful as well.
My most recent visit was sparked by Netflix’s “Street Food”series, created by the talented minds behind “Chef’s Table,”both of which I couldn’t recommend enough. The Street Food series highlights street food vendors across nine different Asian countries. Seoul happens to be one of those.
Before venturing over to see what Netflix so brilliantly showcased, I was talked into trying yukhoe (raw beef tartare) and sannakji (fresh raw live octopus). Plenty of restaurants in the market have it, so our Korean friends chose one that looked promising. We quickly crack some beers and soju, and within minutes a plate of clearish gray octopus is on a big plate before us.
Squirming every which way, the tentacles suction to the side of the plate and onto your chopsticks. Seeing this will automatically have some people nope out of trying it. It also makes the raw beef sitting on the table an afterthought, which is delicious by the way. Dipping the tentacles into a tray of soy sauce, and then hastily into your mouth, getting a few hard bites in is key if you don’t want them suctioning to the inside of your cheek or lips. With octopus and beef in our stomachs, we venture back out to find Cho’s stall.
The spotlight of the Seoul episode is Gwangjang Market and specifically, Cho Yoon-sun. The 58-year-old Korean has had a stall for over a decade, where she greets every customer with the warmest smile imaginable. Think seeing your Grandma on Christmas-type smile. Heartfelt, inviting, and just asking to cook you up something tasty. Her stall, known for her knife-cut noodles and kimchi mando, was passed down from her mother, and since has been tinkered with over the years to perfection. Both dishes are to die for, and so is Cho Yoon-sun.
KJ SCHULTZ, a Seoul resident and Ottawa native, teaches English as a foreign language in South Korea. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com.