Street carts roll their way into new frontiersTo say that Seoul is fast-paced is an understatement. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Seoul is the city that never stops having mood swings. Its streets are temperamental, constantly changing faces ― organic vegetable shops turn into pizza parlors and night clubs turn into classic Italian restaurants, then rotate back every few months.
With its shops, buildings and streets eternally shape-shifting, it’s no wonder that the public’s taste in street food comes and goes at even shorter intervals. Of course, the perennial favorites ― tteokbokgi (sliced rice cakes and vegetables boiled in hot pepper paste), odeng (fish cake skewers with broth) and sundae (Korean-style sausage) ― can be seen on every block of every main street in the city. However, more trendy options tend to have their time in the spotlight and then disappear.
As much as street stalls are a part of life in Seoul, the city has tried several times to make its streets vendor-free. In the most recent major push, the Seoul city government, as part of its city beautification plan, planned to ban the sale of food out of street carts in the city right before the 2002 World Cup games. In response, the vendors banded together in protest and the government backed down.
“The street vendor situation in Seoul is still at a standstill at the moment. Although many citizens see the vendors as a nostalgic or personal part of the city, they need to be removed in order for the city to grow,” said Yu Sei-jong, an official at the vendor maintenance division of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Regulated or not, the market can be a tough one. With so many vendors selling tteokbokgi, odeng and sundae, stall owners have tried to branch out.
The following are what’s for sale on the street in some of Seoul’s busier parts ― Jongno, Myeong-dong, Sinchon, the area around Ewha Womans University, Hongik University, Insa-dong, the area around Gangnam station and Apgujeong. Surprisingly, many of the vendors refused to give their names, not because they feared exposure but because they felt it would be immodest to do so.
Although there are no records stating the exact year or in which period street food began to appear in Korea, most records state that the culture was started immediately before or during the Joseon Dynasty, where travelers who walked around the country would stop to rest their feet for a while and fill their stomachs. One prerequisite for the food for these street vendors was that it had to be easy and quick to prepare. For this reason, bibimbap (mixed vegetables with rice and red pepper paste) and rice stew became popular meals.
During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), industrialism came to Korea and began to influence the country’s commerce and trade. A new street culture, including street food vendors, started to develop as well. During this period, Japanese food, including senbei (rice crackers) and yanggeng (red bean jelly) became popular.
During and after the Korean War, street food became more Westernized. Corndogs, fried vegetables, squid and rice cakes emerged as the most popular items.
“I started two weeks ago. Unlike tteokbokgi, takoyaki is much easier to make and doesn’t make a mess in the process,” said the 20-something takoyaki vendor in front of Ewha Womans University last Friday evening. When asked about the rather large number of stands selling the baked octopus snack in the streets of Seoul these days, he said, “Takoyaki was featured in the cartoon ‘Shin Chan’ recently. I think that’s why many children crave it. Almost half of my customers are parents who are walking along the street with a child begging them to buy a set of takoyaki.”
A classic staple on the streets of Japan, this menu started gaining ground in Korea a couple of years ago. “When I started a takoyaki stand in 2000, on a main street in Busan, I had to close down the business in one month because nobody knew what it was,” the owner said. “However, now that I started again, I’m doing much better.”
The owner said that he and his friend own the cart and that they are looking into other fusion recipes they can add to the menu if this cart does well.
Youngchul Street Burger has been something of a tourist attraction around Korea University for years. Now a franchise with around 40 branches and vendors, the burgers, which have pork and vegetable fillings in a hot-dog bun, have come to symbolize more than just lunch. Since 2004, the vendor franchise has been giving donations of up to 20 million won ($20,812) for Korea University to give to its students as scholarships.
A few years ago, it was merely a hole-in-the-wall near Korea University ― but one with students lining up around the corner for lunch or dinner. Now the original vendor has relocated to across the street and even has a free soft drink machine, a metal bar for students to rest on, and a staff of two.
The burger itself is a rather Koreanized mix of American hot dogs and hamburgers, with cabbage and Korean chili peppers.
A former Korea University student, Jung Mi-hwan, 26, said, “I remember those burgers, not because they’re particularly good, but because they gave me a certain school spirit.”
In the summer heat, more street vendors are selling either blended fruit juice or slices of fresh fruit. “I’ve been selling fresh fruit, mainly berries during the summer and tangerines during the winter, for almost 10 years at this spot,” said a female owner of a street food cart in Jongno, central Seoul, as she handed a customer a paper cup full of iced cherries.
“Many people these days worry about the sanitary conditions of street food. In this case, selling fresh fruit has a lot of advantages.” She laughed and said, “Unlike the tteokbokgi carts with dried sauce spots all over the table, my cart only has dried spots of water!”
A vendor next to City Theater near Gangnam station sells authentic kebabs and Turkish ice cream. Although the kebabs are a bit more expensive than regular Korean street food (3,000 won, about $3.60, for chicken kebab and 3,500 won for beef kebab) they attract a fair amount of regular customers. “I go to a language institute nearby and always stop here for the kebabs during lunch hour. The meat isn’t greasy and I like the fact that the menu is exotic but authentically-made,” said Kim Sang-chul, 24.
One of the owners said in broken English that people are attracted to the exotic appearance of the rotisserie.
A vendor selling an array of sausages, including chili, curry, chicken and pork, on a large, flat iron plate in Myeong-dong says business is heating up. The owners, a married couple, say that they pay special attention to cooking the sausages with good oil (they claim to use only olive oil) to make the links crispy on the outside but not drenched in grease.
The couple has great confidence in its food. Asked their names, the wife pointed at the picture of their cart on a TV show and said, “We’ve had so much publicity we’d rather not have too much attention ― at least for now.”
One famous street vendor near the Migliore shopping center in Dongdaemun is easily distinguished from the other carts: This one has rows of people lining up in front of it, waiting for 1,500-won mini pizzas. While street-side pizzas aren’t new in Seoul, the vast majority serve what could only sympathetically be called pizza; ketchup, sadly, does not taste the same as real pizza tomato sauce. A representative at Food & Consulting, the Dongdaemun vendor’s mother company, said its carts used a mix of Hunt’s pure tomato paste with the company’s own Italian sauce that includes different herbs and spices.
It’s a small cart with a wide selection: 10 different kinds of miniature gimbap (rice-and-seaweed rolls) with unique fillings, such as anchovies, pork cutlet and red peppers. The primary merit behind this vendor is that each customer can customize their snack and pick and choose their own set of gimbap.
“I was a housewife before I started doing this last October,” said the owner of the Yulccoma Gimbap cart in Insadong, central Seoul. “Business is good at this point. People recognize [what I’m selling] and feel familiar with it, but at the same time, they like the fact that it has a twist.”
by Cho Jae-eun