Food, Drink Tents Stretch Desirability

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Food, Drink Tents Stretch Desirability

It was late at night, about 11:30, and Oh Myung-kwan and Theo Kwon did not want to go home. The advertising men had earlier that day had their computers and office furniture repossessed. The pair believed that one of their business partners had caused the ad agency to go belly-up. The two men badly wanted a drink.

Sinsa-dong, where their office was located, is like many parts of Seoul, surrounded by countless bars, clubs and other drinking joints. But both Mr. Oh and Mr. Kwon were in the mood for something different. They wanted the quintessential drinking experience - the pojang macha, an ultra-cheap drinking spot usually made of a street cart covered with an orange plastic sheet cover.

It was almost midnight when the two men ducked under the orange plastic cover. Amidst the dim incandescent lights and hazy smoke, the drinkers and diners were deeply immersed in conversations. One person after another poured their drinks into shot glasses and gulped them down, almost immediately feeling a cool, burning sensation. The sound of sizzling food on the grill partially overcame the sound of traffic surrounding the drinkers. Conversations overlapped, but once inside the pojang macha, no one cared. At least not for long.

This pattern has been repeated at endless pojang macha (literally, "covered wagon," also known as "soju tents" by many foreigners) all over the Korean peninsula for years. These makeshift restaurants thrown up along any street or empty space have long been associated with a certain nostalgia for Korea's poor past.

In a recent television commercial, the familiar image of a lonely, overworked father drinking at a pojang macha struck deeply at an emotional chord in the Korean people. And an invitation to a pojang macha connotes emotional bonding and perhaps intimate conversation. Many tour guides for foreigners say that visiting the pojang macha is one of most interesting and "real" Korean experiences.

From early evening to dawn, chefs serve the traditional Korean liquor, soju, and various street-style anju (side dishes). Popular dishes include ggomjang-eo gui (grilled fresh water eel), odeng (Japanese fish cakes), udong (noodle dishes), ramyeon (instant noodles), dakbal (chicken's feet), dakddongjib (chicken gizzards), daehaptang (spicy clam stew), odolbbyeo (grilled chicken) and ggochi (meat and other ingredients on a skewer).

Drinking and dining in these carts may appear humble, but beware: soju and anju served in some places do not come cheap. Since many pojang macha do not display their prices, you might want to ask before ordering. A bottle of soju can cost as little as 2,500 won ($1.90) and go higher than 5,000 won. But remember, pojang macha lovers rarely stop at just one bottle or one anju.

Here is the bad news: In Korea any type of vendor on the street is illegal, and the city government is actively discouraging and trying to root out pojang macha culture. According to Lee Gyeong-su at the Construction Administration Division in City Hall, the sprawling street vendors have become a major problem to the city environment. There are more than 1,700 pojang macha - and the number is still growing - across Seoul. The city government considers them not only unattractive, but also damaging to the economy and citizens' health because the pojang macha evades taxes and sanitary regulations.

In the past, running a cart eatery was considered an occupation for the poor, but Mr. Lee at City Hall thinks this is not true now. "It is no longer a means of survival for the poor. The majority of pojang macha in Korea are now organized, often operated in connection with organized crime. Starting a pojang macha does not take any talent or money." Mr. Lee said that the biggest problem with pojang macha is that most eateries do not have running water. Instead, many pojang macha owners use cheap plastic bags over the plates to minimize dish washing. However, the use of industrial plastic bags has not been approved by the city's health and sanitation regulations.

Around the time of the 1988 Olympic Games, the Seoul city government told cart owners they could not operate on main boulevards. This only moved the pojang macha and did nothing to get rid of the problem. And after the economic problems of the mid-'90s, the carts returned to the streets as popular as ever. The city is planning to abolish street vendors entirely within a year or so, but even then, Mr. Lee doubts all pojang machas will soon disappear from Korea.

The good news is that recently there emerged a hybrid pojang macha in the back streets. To supply the demand for the old tradition while concurring with stiff regulations, some clever restaurateurs opened legitimate eateries called silnae pojang macha (indoor pojang macha).

by Inēs Cho

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