Where Food Mixes With Antiques

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Where Food Mixes With Antiques

If Insa-dong conjures up images of potholed streets, illegally parked cars and general chaos, you may be pleasantly surprised. Long famous for its antique shops, galleries, teahouses and shops that sell traditional knickknacks, Insa-dong reopened last month after a major facelift. Even a casual visitor will immediately notice that the main street is paved with black bricks instead of asphalt. The bricks lend a quaint atmosphere and are in marked contrast to the mostly gray and white buildings.

More than 100 granite structures placed in front of shops and around large trees are hard to miss. The structures, intended to serve as benches and flowerpots, also deter parking, which is illegal anyway. Other changes include a 40-meter artificial waterway at the northern entrance to Insa-dong on the Anguk-dong side. The waterway is a symbolic representation of a stream that once ran there. At the south end of Insa-dong, on the Chongno side, eight tall wooden pillars mark the entrance.

All this sprucing up would be meaningless if people could not walk down the street to enjoy the changes - and significant efforts have been made to attract pedestrians. Although it may be more obvious to motorists, the 690-meter main thoroughfare has been narrowed to make it more pedestrian-friendly. The street, which was 6.15 meters wide in places, has been reduced to 5.8 meters to make it more conducive to walking.

And in another move to encourage people to the area, the steet is now closed to traffic from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays. This is a welcome move in a city where pedestrians often run the risk of being run over, even on the sidewalks as drivers try to dodge the traffic snarl.

The strategies seem to be working. On a recent bleak November Sunday afternoon, the street was fairly crowded with people enjoying the newly found freedom from cars and motorcycles.

In addition to the usual Insa-dong crowd of foreign tourists, couples on dates and middle-aged couples with school-age children in tow, there were more young parents pushing strollers than on most other Seoul streets.

"We came down because we heard the area is car-free on Sundays," said a pedestrian who wanted to be called only Mr. Lee, pushing his year-old son in a stroller. "This is one of the few spots in Seoul where we can take a leisurely stroll with the baby."

What can people find in Insa-dong? Of course, there are the antique shops, those selling traditional ink and brushes and teahouses that are all duly described in travel books and brochures.

What surprises visitors are the many food vendors, most of whom sell simple traditional food that holds fond memories for older visitors.

The sweet aroma of popki, an old-fashioned candy made by stirring sugar and a dash of baking soda over a fire, recalls days of yesteryear, when children saved up what little allowance they got to treat themselves to the candy. The name popki comes from a game that is played with the candy. Outlines of shapes such as a star or a triangle are pressed onto the sheet of candy. Those who can press out the shape, without breaking the sheet, get another candy.

Yot, a traditional sweet made from pumpkin, is another perennial favorite. Although yot is now often given to students to wish them luck for exams, yot sellers of yesteryear were also antique buyers who exchanged yot for salvageable junk. When children heard the clinking of the yot seller's scissors, they would run to their houses and bring him items such as old brassware, broken radios and so on, in anticipation of a sweet treat.

A favorite winter snack is chrysanthemum cake or goldfish cake, depending on the shape. Do not let the names fool you. There are no chrysanthemums or goldfish inside. The cakes are actually waffles filled with sweet red bean paste. Batter is poured into moulds shaped like chrysanthemums or goldfish.

The expression "You are just like a chrysanthemum cake," is often used by Koreans to describe a child who takes after a parent - chrysanthemum cakes look alike because they come from the same mould.

Kangjung, made on the spot, draws crowds of curious onlookers. Cereals such as rice, brown rice and barley are toasted and mixed with corn syrup to hold the bits together. These treats are then shaped and cut into little squares.

More sophisticated than ordinary toasted cereals, kangjung is often served as dessert on festive occasions and goes perfectly with traditional Korean tea.

Although visitors seem to enjoy watching these snacks being made, with many people buying the food, some people are worried that the street vendors may get out of hand.

"We find it difficult to enforce regulations on these vendors," said Myung Jun-hee, a member of the Insa Traditional Culture Preservation Association. Indeed, Insa-dong has been plagued with problems caused by outdoor vendors who sell alcohol in the evening.

"The number of eateries here is disproportionately large compared to the antique shops and art dealers for which Insa-dong is famous," said Ms. Myung.

She explained that there were about 80 antique shops and art dealers, but more than 180 restaurants, tea houses and cafes.

"Shop owners are concerned that the area could degenerate into just another popular eating spot," she said.
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