Hang up your shopping bags and fill up on wholesomNext time you're shopping in Namdaemun Market, make it a point to visit the women who serve homemade noodles.
You'll be somewhere in the market's maze of alleyways, so make sure you know how to get there. The noodle-eating area is in the heart of the market and consists of tables jammed between two buildings. (See the box for directions.)
When you get to noodle alley, each ajumma will greet you by shouting that you should sit down at her noodle stand -- and nobody else's. The best chef is the third on the right as you enter; you can tell from Chungcheong province accent.
Women from Chungcheong speak slowly, but they're whizzes in the kitchen. This ajumma can whip up several dishes at a time when customers crowd her table. She seats 10 customers at an aluminum table less than four meters long. To make room, she hangs the customers' bags on the wall. You sit close and wait.
Her kitchen counter has two pots, a few bowls of seasonings, and plastic bags holding potatoe slices, fried tofu, chopped green onions, shredded seaweed paper and naengmyeon noodles.
In one pot, she boils anchovy stock. In the other, she cooks three kinds of dishes: hot noodles, sujebi (flour dumplings) and naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles). She skillfully separates the three by twisting and swirling a large dipper. Over a hot bowl of ordinary noodles she piles fried tofu, seaweed flakes, sesame seeds and a teaspoon of red chili pepper paste. If you gaze at one topping, she'll ask, "Want more?"
The soup is hot, delicious and has a depth of many flavors. The noodles, bearing the slight irregularities of hand-rolled dough, are chewy yet tender. In the broth are bits of zucchini, green onions, potatoes and peppers. (Your tastebuds will think they're getting Mom's cooking.)
Look around and you'll notice this eatery is the busiest around. Why?
"I use no MSG," the ajumma says. "I make a real stock from anchovies, not those powders with flavor enhancers."
And she prepares everything else from scratch. The seasonal kimchi made at home goes perfectly with her food.
The ajumma opened her eatery in 1992, and doubled her table space a few years later when a neighbor quit. Her business rises and falls with Namdaemun's fortunes. "I can tell these days are not so good," she says, "because I'm not selling a lot."
Eleven years ago, when she started her business, she charged 1,200 won ($1) for a bowl of noodles; now it's 3,500 won.
Competition among eateries is so fierce that the ajumma in the alley are offering free starters. With hot dishes like kalguksu noodles or sujebi, a small bowl of spicy naengmyeon is given at no extra cost.