The beginner’s guide to street foodForeigners might not completely understand Korean street food. But street food vendors understand foreigners. At least, Choi Mi-won does.
“Americans tend to like fritters, especially squid, while Japanese love kimchi patties and gimbap,” says the 50-something ajumma, who’s been selling street food in Jongno for 10 years.
“Chinese, on the other hand, like dumpling fritters,” Ms. Choi says, scooping up tteokbokgi for her customers late one recent evening. “Some Japanese tourists come to pack the food right before they board the plane, to share with friends at home.”
From school girls to office workers, the sight of people clustered around street food carts in threes and fours is an essential part of the Seoul cityscape. In Jongno, it’s been that way since the Joseon Dynasty.
So it may come as a surprise to hear that it’s illegal to sell food out of street carts in Seoul. “Having anything set up on a street is banned,” says Kim Og-dong with the Jongno District Office. The law, says Mr. Kim, is “for the convenience of citizens.”
It appears safe to say that this law is not widely enforced. Before the World Cup in 2002, the government tried to clear the streets of vendors as part of a city beautification plan, but the vendors formed a union to protest, and the government backed down. The government might not be happy about it, but the countless people who stop by for a bite every day are doubtlessly pleased. They might even find it convenient.
Of the street food served year-round, tteokbokgi is second to none in popularity. Tteokbokgi is sliced rice cakes sauteed and boiled with hot pepper paste and vegetables. Its spicy flavor and the chewy texture of the rice cakes have made it a favorite of the Korean palate.
While tteokbokgi takes the undisputed first place in street diners’ hearts, not too far behind are odeng, skewered fish cake boiled in broth, and sundae, a Korean-style sausage. Assorted twigim, or fritters, are another big part of street cart dining. The real Korean way to eat sundae and twigim is to mix them with the spicy and versatile tteokbokgi sauce, with a cup of odeng soup handy to soothe the palate after those pungent tastes.
The street food scene has always been open to new trends. Besides the stalwart classics, these days you can find cross-cultural items like Koreanized hamburgers, miniature pizzas and waffles. One recent development is soft ice cream cones stacked 30 centimeters (about a foot) high; another is miniature gimbap. The health-conscious can even pick out a cup full of fruit and have the ajumma blend it into a smoothie. Jongno and Myeongdong have been particular trendsetters when it comes to street food.
It’s popular not just among Koreans, of course, but among foreigners. Hwang Hye-jin, a 23-year-old woman who sells miniature gimbap, says she came to learn a few words of English and Japanese from her foreign customers.
She sometimes warns her foreign patrons when they choose a hot filling like chopped raw peppers, only to be told, “Even better.” “I’m amazed how much they love Korean street food,” Ms. Hwang says, beaming and rolling a gimbap with skilled hands.
One concern some consumers might have about street food, especially in the summertime, is hygiene. Ms. Choi exudes confidence when asked about the issue.
“Street food is one of the safest foods,” she claims. “It’s always boiling hot, a natural protection against bacteria.” To minimize any danger, she (along with many other street vendors) serves the food on plates wrapped in vinyl bags, which she throws away after each customer. At the end of the night, she says, she washes down everything on her cart and gives the leftover food to homeless people.
For a visual guide to what’s what in those carts, check out the photos and information above and below. Bon appetit!
by Chun Su-jin