FOOD FIGHTOn a rainy day in some downtown streets, it is almost impossible to walk with an umbrella. The endless rows of food carts lined up selling eomuk, boiled fish paste on a skewer, make navigating difficult. On the other hand, stepping into one of the crowded tents with a date and sharing a plate of tteokbokki, rice cakes in hot sauce, can be one of the easiest ways to wait for the rain to pass by.
Kim Hye-sook runs one such food cart. From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., she can be found in Namdaemun Market selling beondegi, silkworm larvae. A block away, Lee Sun-mi sells Korean-style pizza. They both have simple food menus ?only bundaegi for Ms. Kim, only pizza for Ms. Lee. But in the midst of a government crackdown on food vendors, Ms. Kim is feeling the squeeze, while Ms. Lee is resting easy.
The government has long tried to shut down the capital's ubiquitous food vendors, with little success. But last August, the Seoul Metropolitan Government got serious, ordering all district offices to ban street foods cooked on the spot. It is a perculiar choice of words, but basically it means an end to traditional Korean snacks. Instead, only food that can be cooked ahead of time then reheated in the carts will be allowed ?like hamburgers, hot dogs, pizzas, sandwiches and gimbap, rice snacks rolled in seaweed.
"We realize that trying to abolish the street food culture is impossible, because their lives are dependent on it," said a patrol chief at the Jung-gu District Office. Government officials can be seen cruising the streets every day, keeping the peninsula safe from culinary outlaws.
Enforcement, however, is uneven. In some districts, food vendors are merely encouraged to stop selling alcohol and take up less space in busy areas.
As for the Mapo district, home to Seoul's World Cup Stadium, a special patrol team will be organized for intensive controls on street vendors around the stadium. For Korean sports fans accustomed to eating and buying Korean traditional snacks, such as buttered squid and beondegi in orange tents before a game, food courts will be the only game in town.
Even on this day, a patrol group gets ready to go out on their patrol to the market. That's good news for Ms. Lee and bad for Ms. Kim.
She sells silkworm larvae, but the government is the only thing that bugs her.
By Park Soo-mee
"I am furious," says Kim Hye-sook, 45, while responding to the government's recent crackdown on traditional food vendors, part of the country's image makeover for the World Cup. "You can't live in this country if you don't have power or money. No wonder so many Koreans are moving out to other countries."
It's 6 degrees below zero centigrade just outside the Mesa Shopping Mall, a discount shop in Namdaemun Market, and this middle-aged street merchant selling salted beondegi, or silkworm larvae, is spewing vitriol while she moves her pushcart out of the way of a passing truck. Just last week, Ms. Kim was dragged to a local police station for selling beondegi and steamed baby seashells in the streets of Myeong-dong. At the station, an officer immediately confiscated her cart, and Ms. Kim paid a 50,000 won ($38) penalty for being an unregistered vendor. "The government is never on our side," she says.
A few days later, Ms. Kim went back to the police station. There, she was returned her cart on the condition she not go back to Myeong-dong. She didn't ?at least not for a while. At first, Ms. Kim settled in Namdaemun Market, where police patrols are less frequent than in Myeong-dong. But after several days, when Ms. Kim realized that her sales in Namdaemun were less than half of what she made in Myeong-dong, she devised a new strategy. Every day from about 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., she now sells beondegi to shoppers in Namdaemun Market. Then, in the late evening, when most of the anti-vendor squads in Myeong-dong finish patrolling the area, she moves her cart to the place "where people come to spend money," and continues until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Ms. Kim charges 2,000 won for a single cup of beondegi in Namdaemun Market. In Myeong-dong, the price jumps to 3,000 won. If it's a good day, Ms. Kim makes about 300,000 won, but normally she pulls in a little less than 100,000 won. Before, she used to show up at almost every festival held in the country, where traditional snacks like beondegi are most welcomed by locals. But Ms. Kim stopped going to them a few years ago. Simply, she tired of spending so much time on the road.
Ms. Kim has been selling beondegi on and off for the last 18 years. At times she tried making a living doing other things. With her husband, who now sells roasted chestnuts and ginkgo nuts in downtown Seoul, she once ran a modest restaurant in Gyeonggi province. She also operated a street fruit stand and briefly owned a small pojang macha, or drinking tent, in northern of Seoul. But Ms. Kim says she made the most money selling beondegi. "In some people's eyes, I may look miserable selling beondegi on the street, but you can't do other businesses after getting your hands in this stuff," she says. "I sent my two kids to university and bought a small house outside of Seoul with this business."
As the weather gets chillier, Ms. Kim warms her hands over her pots. When a young female customer stops by and demands a bargain, Ms. Kim responds with dignity: "My beondegi is different." A couple of American shoppers watch in awe when Ms. Kim starts to pour water and salt into a boiling pot of bug-like beondegi. She says to them in Korean, "They will bite if you look for too long."
Ms. Kim says she hopes to continue this business until she has enough money to open a small accessory shop in Myeong-dong. "After I become rich, I want to spend some time in China," she says. Ms. Kim talks fondly of her recent visit to Xinyang in southern China, where she enjoyed seeing "people living a humble style of life as farmers, cooking rice every morning in a traditional stove."
She takes a long deep breath while recalling the nightmarish quarrel with the police and says, "I was the only vendor that evening in Myeong-dong who was dragged to a police station," she says. "The others were fine because they bribed the district office. People ask how could that be, but that's how things work here."
She makes and bakes pizza for eat-on-the-goers, and nobody bothers her
By Joe Yong-hee
If you ask Lee Sun-mi about the government crackdown on street vendors, she chooses her words carefully.
"When I throw a party, I get ready by cleaning up my home," she says in appreciation of why World Cup officials want to clean up Korean streets before the big event.
From the perimeter of Namdaemun Market in Seoul, Ms. Lee sells saucer-sized pizzas for 1,000 won (75 cents) and cans of Coke for 700 won. Hawaii Pizza, her three-stool, open-front stall, seems almost makeshift: one wall is common with another shop, and plastic partitions make up the other two walls. Hawaii Pizza, which she and her husband began three years ago, was her first foray into the food industry. Except for the dough, all her ingredients ?pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, green peppers, corn, ham, onions, mushrooms ?are precut and/or precooked.
Even though Ms. Lee is not on the front lines of the scuffle between the traditional street vendors and the city government, she is empathetic because the topic is a sore one in the street vendor community.
"I understand what the government is trying to do," she says, before backpedaling her opinion. "But why can't Koreans serve our own food? Why is only Western food O.K.? The food vendors inside the market are hurt. The government should create a standard of cleanliness, not demolish a rich history."
While she talks, she bakes tray after tray of pizza from behind a small counter. For a nearby nursery school, she is whipping up an order of 25 little pies. With dexterity, Ms. Lee slices off dough, rolls it flat, places it on a tray and spreads on a rich, red sauce ?whose recipe she keeps secret. When each of the six pans are filled, she passes the tray to another employee, who is standing outside the counter.
The other employee drops on the toppings by hand and passes the tray back to Ms. Lee, who slides the tray inside a shiny oven that can hold two trays. After a couple of minutes, she slides out a tray of pizza. Four trays are in rotation in this assembly line.
For customers who stand by Ms. Lee's little shop to eat, she wraps a pizza in a napkin and offers hot sauce. Few people walk away without a smile.
During a lull in business, she continues: "I doubt the government will be able to do away with the pojang macha tradition," referring to outdoor eating counters. "The vendors will not stand for it."
When asked if she would join the resistance against the government's measures, should there be one, she says, "I'm a small person; there are big people out there. I do have opinions, but I have a family to think about."
She also has a kitchen that is not on wheels.
Breaking new grounds
One day, a stand by the City Hall subway stop that sold household odds and ends was gone. In its place was a green espresso stand. Is this the new generation of walk-by eateries?
Chin Soo-man opened the City Hall branch of Expresscoffee two months ago, and is its owner, manager and clerk. From 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., he serves a simple menu of toast and seven espresso-based drinks ?from inside an aluminum box that gives a new meaning to the word cozy.
"As soon as I opened my stand, a woman came by and ordered a cafe mocha," Mr. Chin recounts through the sliding window of his stand on a cold morning. "I didn't charge her, so she returned a couple minutes later with five co-workers." Business is growing, he said. "It's all about regular customers."
The idea to bring coffee to commuters came to him seven years ago when, as a Samsung employee on a business trip to New York, he saw a coffee stand. The stand was tiny, but the line of customers was long. Still, he decided Korea wasn't ready then for a coffee craze. Is Korea ready now? Just look at the shivering line by Mr. Chin's place during peak hours.
by Rhee Hyun-ju