No-frills market food for shoppers needing a boostSeoul’s traditional markets are a Pandora’s box of surprises. But among the stalls selling nifty gadgets and exotic knick-knacks, hidden alleys house family-run restaurants that serve cheap, wholesome food to shopped-out customers.
The dishes are cheap and will never test the muscle of your purse or wallet, and they emphasize taste and nutrition over fanciful presentation.
Here are some popular market foods that define gourmet standards for budget meals aimed at savvy shoppers.
The thick blobs of chili paste drip down the steel legs of the gas stove. The cooks hurriedly dump chunks of radish and galchi, or hairtail, into the pot and the roar of the stoves fills the restaurant.
These scenes stay with you for days when you recall a trip to Heerak in Namdaemun Market in central Seoul.
The restaurant’s seasoned hairtail is typical of Korean food, which is noted for its bold, earthy quality.
Heerak is popular with Japanese tourists who come to browse Seoul’s oldest and largest retail market.
These days the restaurant is catering to customers fresh from viewing the nearby charred wreck that was once Namdaemun Gate, after it was recently damaged by fire.
Most weekday lunchtimes this alley is packed with office workers sampling the hairtail seasoned with soy sauce, chili paste and crushed garlic.
The meals are served in rusted-brown nickel bowls, the kind that have long since disappeared from homes in Korea.
The way to enjoy the hairtail dish Korean-style is to eat the fish and radish first, and then pour rice into the leftover sauce.
Phone: (02) 2264-7668
Direction: Jongno 5-ga Station, line No. 1, exit 5
Hours: Open from 9 p.m. through 4 p.m.
Menu: Midget gimbap, stuffed rice in fried bean curd (2,000 won, $2.12), and udon, or fishcakes (1,000 won for 2 sticks)
Ggoma Gimbap in Gwangjang Market
The restaurant Ggoma Gimbap is far from traditional. Its gimbap, or stuffed rice rolls, skips on the minced meat and fried eggs and is a third the size of the gimbap you buy in other restaurants and fast-food chains.
That’s why this eatery, which is essentially a cart near the back gate in Gwangjang Market, is called Ggoma Gimbap. It means “midget roll” in Korean.
There is something irresistibly addictive about these rolls. Local culinary nerds describe them as a “drug gimbap.” But long before the pleasure-seekers set foot in this market, the restaurant found fame among designers and shopping gurus who flock to Gwangjang for a quick midnight snack.
The rolls are not packed full of food and the ingredients might sound a little on the lean side, but they create strangely harmonizing flavors in your mouth.
Among the more popular rolls are braised carrots, spinach and pickled daikon with daubs of sesame oil, which you dip in a wasabi soy sauce.
The cart-owner possesses the same generosity of spirit as the market’s stall holders. When you order midget rolls, you get fried bean curd stuffed with rice for free.
Phone: (02) 755-3449
Direction: Hoehyeon Station, line No. 4, exit 5
Hours: Open 3 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Menu: Seasoned hairtail fish (6,000 won, $6.36)
Jeonju Sikdang near Dongdaemun Market
If you stroll through the side alleys of Jongno 6-ga, you find yourself traveling back to 1960s Seoul.
You pass rows of hiking shops, a traditional market, a cramped passageway lined with used-book stores and clusters of soju joints.
By the time you reach “roasted fish alley” at the end of the street, you’ll be breathing deep the smoke and the thick aroma of fish grilling outside the restaurants.
Jongno 5-ga was busier when the city’s main bus terminal and a historic baseball stadium meant lots of cheap meals for visitors.
The restaurants still get crowded on weekend nights with hikers and shoppers from nearby Dongdaemun Market.
Jeonju Sikdang, opened 20 years ago by a Jeonju native, specializes in grilled croaker and Spanish mackerel.
But mackerel pike is the house dish, roasted with a pinch of salt.
The side dishes are basic kimchi offerings and a few braised vegetables. But don’t let appearances put you off. The meals are homey with generous portions of rice served in an unpretentious atmosphere.
After all, no frills is the hallmark of market food.
Phone: (02) 2267-6897
Direction: Jongno 5-ga Station, line No. 1, exit 5
Hours: Open 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Menu: Roasted fish (4,000 won, $4.24)
Somunnan Naengmyeon at Gyeongdong Market
As you wade through the pool of shops that exude a rich aroma of medicinal herbs at Gyeongdong Market, you might spot a walking ad.
An old man wanders the market stalls wearing a coat emblazoned with “Somunnam Naengmyeon,” a restaurant whose name means “famous noodles” in Korean.
Take the stairs down to the restaurant and you can order a bowl of bibim naengmyeon, or cold noodles mixed with spicy sauce on a bed of ice cubes.
Nothing stands out as strongly about the place as its name, but the noodle dish, which costs 3,500 won ($3.71) a bowl, is unusually cheap even for a market.
The restaurant also attracts publicity because it’s a family business run by six siblings.
The eldest brother is the PR manager: the old chap walking around with the ad on his coat.
The noodles come in three types: less spicy, medium spicy and very spicy.
They are served with chili seasoning and a minced meat topping. Pour a side kettle of cold meat broth into the bowl and you get mul naengmyeon, noodles in chilled broth.
Perhaps the place deserves credit for its versatility.
Phone: (02) 967-4103
Direction: Jegi-dong Station, line No. 1, exit 2
Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Menu: Cold noodles (3,500 won, $3.71) and dumpling soup (3,500 won)
Hyoja-dong Yetnal Tteokbokggi in Tongin Market
Hyoja-dong Yetnal Tteokbokggie means “old-style tteokbokgi [stir fried rice cakes] in Hyoja-dong.” Five women, who passed away many years ago, created the recipe in this market 50 years ago. Only two shops in Tongin Market carry on this traditional delicacy: Wonjo Halmeoni Tteokbokgi-jip, the original house for these stir-fried rice cakes, and the old-styled tteokbokgi in Hyoja-dong, which is slightly older.
The restaurant lives up to its reputation. Master chef Jeong Wol-seon uses simple ingredients and veteran skills to concoct his eclectic sauces, which come in two types: chili and soy sauce.
You can also order half and half. The chili sauce is strong on garlic, and both sauces minimize sweetness.
Unlike today’s tteobokgi ― rice cakes stir-fried in a spicy sauce with vegetables and fish cakes ― the oldstyle sticks to the saltier soy sauce and more slender strips of rice cake made at a neighboring mill. The new style is hugely popular among Korean schoolkids; the old style attracts older crowds.
In either sauce, the rice cakes fry up with a toasty texture.
Phone: (02) 735-7289
Direction: Anguk Station, line No. 3, exit 1, then walk toward Pungmun Girl’s High School
Hours: Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Menu: Tteobokgi (2,000 won, $2.12) assorted pan-fries for 600 grams (7,000 won)
Hwangso Maeul at Itaewon Market
Itaewon Market is where savvy shoppers flock to find knockoff designer-brand handbags and clothes.
Here you see trendy young Korean women cruising the market carrying magazine cutouts of the items they want, bargaining hard with shrill-voiced hawkers.
“Stone-bowl Tonic Rice” at Hwango Maeul is an energy-boosting meal that pumps up shoppers taking a break from their hunt around the market.
The place was originally a barbecue restaurant, but it’s better known now among younger shoppers for its tonic rice.
The dish, a set meal that comes with a soybean stew, grilled fish and side dishes, is a real stomach-filler.
It contains ingredients favored by Japanese tourists, including ginseng and dates.
Once you finish the rice, pour water into the stone bowl to get the thin crust of scorched rice left in the bottom of the pot.
Advance orders are recommended if you are in hurry. The cooking takes about 20 minutes, meaning the food should be fresh.
Phone: (02) 794-6373
Direction: Itaewon Station, line No. 6, exit 4
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Menu: Stone-bowl tonic rice (7,000 won, $7.42)
By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter [email@example.com]