A life spent well with the king of snacks

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A life spent well with the king of snacks

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Beondegi on sale in Namdaemun market. This is one of the few vendors still offering the snack. By Kang Uk-hyun

There are few foodstuffs that can provoke such an extreme reaction as beondegi, or silkworm pupae. Cooked and seasoned, the tiny nuggets are sold in paper cups by street vendors. Some say beondegi smell delicious and sweet and bring back memories of the past. Others grimace, saying the smell is too pungent and the sight of the boiled silkworms is disturbing.
For Lee Yeong-nan, 62, the tiny creature with its crispy protective coating is the most precious thing in the world. She believes her three children grew up to be healthy adults by eating the chewy bugs. And she is proud of the fact that she sent two of her offspring to college with the money she made selling hundreds of thousands of beondegi cups in the Gwangjang textiles market, where she is now the sole beondegi vendor.
“They are good today, plump and sweet,” she said, giving the shiny aluminum pot full of the brownish pupae a big stir with a dipper. Ms. Lee, who is short and plump, began to smile when three middle-aged shoppers said they wanted two cups instead of one. They increased their order after Ms. Lee told them that beondegi are full of protein and low in fat.
When another group of shoppers approached her small hand-made cart, she said they should come nearer to warm themselves over the briquette fire she uses for cooking. When they did, she added they might as well have some beondegi while they were there because it is the “ideal snack to eat during the cold wintertime.” Her visitors took some and the lady was happy again.
“For 24 years, I sold beondegi here. I have the best recipe,” she said ― although her recipe only consists of salt, monosodium glutamate and clean beondegi.
“You have to have a good eye to pick out the best beondegi in order to make them sweet,” she added.
Ms. Lee began to push her mini cart, saying it was time to move on. She was done with the cloth alley and wanted to move into the button alley where she said hungry merchants would be waiting. Then she was going to the imported goods alley, arriving at the upper snack alley by dusk, when people getting out of work drop by the snack tents to have soju.
The weather was quite chilly the day I followed her around the market. Ms. Lee started her day at 8:30 a.m. near the eastern entrance of Gwangjang market. She is a diligent woman who goes to Gyeongdong wholesale market every week to buy 20-kilogram sacks of frozen beondegi. These days beondegi are mostly imported from China, a factor that has contributed to the snack’s diminished popularity. Afficionados say the Chinese version are never as sweet as pupae raised in Korea.
Equipped with two briquette fires for her beondegi pot, she wiggles her cart around the market. The only time she stopped was when she used a restroom. Sometimes smoke from the briquette fire made me cough and my eyes water. She told me to stay away from the cart ― not because she was worried about me but because I was blocking the view of her customers.
But this determined lady was not always so strong. Twenty-four years ago, in 1983, she was a shy 39-year-old housewife with three hungry children to feed. Her husband had failed in several businesses and her family was on the verge of being homeless. She wanted to earn money, but her husband was a proud man who would never allow his wife to work.
Despite his resistance, she knew Gwangjang market was crowded with at least a dozen of beondegi ladies. Some ladies sold them squatting on the ground from a single pot kept warm over an open briquette fire, while others with a little money to invest conducted their business from a larger vending cart. It was a time when beondegi was a good snack and an important source of dietary protein and people lined up for multiple cupfuls, especially fathers with their sons.
“Young people who had a good allowance bought more and shared it around with their friends,” Ms. Lee said. “This was a snack that made many people smile.”
When she started, Ms. Lee was one of those who had to sell beondegi from the ground. She was too embarrassed to look up at passers-by.
“I was new and naive in the market,” she said remembering her earlier days. “I couldn’t yell out ‘Bbeon’ with a long drawl like some of the other brave ladies who managed to get attention and sold well.”
Some merchants sold her rotten beondegi. Another told her that she was sitting in his spot and kicked her out of the market. One customer knocked over her fresh pot of beondegi. He refused to compensate her, but instead yelled at her for ruining his pants. To make matters worse, her husband discovered that she was creeping out of the house every morning to sell beondegi. He told her that she was embarrassing his family.
“I ran out of the house that night and cried and cried,” she said. “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”
Ms. Lee managed to persuade her husband, however, largely due to the fact that selling beondegi was good business back then. She built her own mini cart so that she could get through the narrow market alleys, unlike her fellow merchants with bigger carts who had to stay in one place. She immediately became the market’s star.
“People called me the beondegi lady with the mini-cart,” she said proudly. “Everyone knew me.”
Like the beondegi lady, who has weathered the vicissitudes of life, Gwangjang market has also gone through many changes. It had a grand remodeling in 2005 that added new bathrooms and a giant overhead canopy to shield the streets from rain and heat. Ms. Lee said she was glad that the new floor was level and that she could push her cart without tripping. But she still has to face plenty of challenges. Someone stole her cart recently, along with her briquettes and beondegi when she had left the cart unattended for a short time. “I don’t think it could’ve been anyone from this market, because everyone knows me,” she said, still angry.
Beondegi vendors are hard to find in Gwangjang these days, partly because the remodeled market does not allow any newcomers to bring their briquettes in due to the risk of fires in the enclosed space.
Ms. Lee is an exception; the market lets her continue to wiggle her way around, even in the indoor markets. She said she had been warned once that she must stay hidden when the security guards are on patrol, although how they could miss the pungent smell is hard to imagine.
“I will keep going for a few more years, or until my knees give out,” she said. “Without me, people will not be able to smell the sweet smell of briquette-cooked beondegi.”


By Lee Min-a Staff Writer [mina@joongang.co.kr]

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