I left home early in the morning to walk around Seoul. The weather had already cooled down and the morning air was fresh. The plan was to wander around the city and grab some drinks while sitting outside at a nopo (an old, family-owned restaurant) when the sun goes down.
On my way to Eulji-ro, Gwangjang Market came into sight and I spontaneously stopped by. Gwangjang Market is the largest and oldest traditional marketplace in Seoul. Even though I live in Seoul, I don’t go to Gwangjang Market for fun that often. However, Gwangjang Market is so famous as to be known to everybody in South Korea and most times bustles with a lot of tourists.
I know Gwangjang Market at the weekend is usually busy with tons of people coming for various purposes from across the country. But I felt like taking a break under the roof in the market while having some snacks. I already had had enough sunlight. It was time for a rest.
I got into Gwangjang Market through the entrance towards Cheonggyecheon. The market was not as crowded as I expected. Fabric stores and dishware stores popped up, as well as young folks with plastic bags filled with clothes. They seemed to have shopped at vintage clothing stores on the second floor.
As the scenery changed from stores and shoppers to restaurants, Gwangjang Market started bustling. The market is large with wide paths and a high roof, but the paths narrowed down as I neared the famous food district within Gwangjang Market.
Everything around me were restaurants in the food district, from stores lined up on both sides of the big pathway to food carts to those selling soondaes (Korean sausages) on plastic chairs. In tiny kitchens, which are wide open all around, the chefs who are the owners of their own restaurants cooked skillfully with faces flushed by the cooking heat. Colorful dishes were on the shelves that surrounded the kitchens.
Many people were enjoying food (or conversations) sitting next to each other at small tables while a wave of people was moving on through the pathway. Yellow string lights hanging in the food district illuminated the market and loud chatter filled the air. My calm and drowsy soul seemed to have evaporated in the midst of the lights and lively chats going on around me.
Nothing is static here. Dishes are being cooked and served without even a second’s pause. Customers keep eating, drinking, chatting and laughing with a grin on their face. A variety of food smells stimulated my nose, starting with nutty oils and boiling broths. The foods captivated my eyes and nose with their looks and smells. The market is as lively as it is crowded. “It was a great call to stop by,” I thought to myself.
If you don’t like sitting at a food cart on the busy pathway, head towards the small alleys. You can have a seat at a restaurant that intrigues you or go to famous restaurants time-tested by a swathe of people over time.
There are famous street foods that originated at Gwangjang Market. Many restaurants in the market are proud of their long history. Mayak kimbap (drug kimbap) is a great example. It’s a small kimbap made of simple ingredients and enjoyed with a unique sauce. Mayak kimbap started at Gwangjang Market. It is named “drug” as many people are addicted to its taste once they try it.
Another example is dak hanmari, which means a whole chicken in Korean. In a big pot, a whole chicken is boiled with potato, ttuk (rice cake) and vegetables. Then, you dip the ingredients in a sauce made of Korean chili powder and soy sauce. After finishing the chicken and other ingredients in the pot, you can have noodles in the broth. Stephen Biegun, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, was such a huge fan of dak hanmari that he never missed having this food whenever came to Korea.
Besides mayak kimbap and dak hanmari, Gwangjang Market is quite famous for yukhoe (a seasoned raw meat dish similar to tartare) and bindae-tteok (a mung bean pancake). Hot muguk (beef and radish soup) come along with yukhoe, which is another unique thing about Gwangjang Market.
Bunsik (inexpensive, casual Korean dishes like tteokbokki or janchi guksu) are pretty good at Gwangjang Market as well. Bunsik places at Gwangjang Market offer more variety than those outside the market at cheap prices. You can mix and match a lot of different foods here in the market. It’s a perfect choice if you want quick but tasty meals.
In the market, I feel like my chopsticks move more rhythmically and energetically. In the winter, the long and narrow benches are heated up. The benches are the only heating systems for food carts. The roof blocks the cold winter winds, but the air is still cold. But it is still way warmer than outside the market thanks to the hot broths and the body heat from folks sitting closely to each other.
I usually don’t go to famous restaurants which I have to wait in line for. Instead, I just stroll down the market and pick a place that seems to have a nice fit with me and has tables available immediately. I check the menu and prices of course. It is one of my happiest moments when I incidentally find a restaurant with great foods offered at cheap prices that is still not well known.
If you want to visit famous restaurants in Gwangjang Market, you don’t have to worry about any potential long wait. Their table turnover is really high as people want to quickly finish their meals and go back to the market. Buchon Yukhoe, Wonjo Sunine Bindae-tteok and Jinokhwa Halmae Wonjo Dak Hanmari are some of the most popular restaurants in the market.
I had makgeolli (rice wine) with hot food in the middle of the day. Day drinking in the market amid the crowds felt so good. It was the perfect accompaniment to a beautiful weekend day in early fall. The more you’re tired, the sweeter makgeolli tastes, like honey sometimes. Even farmers drink makgeolli when they are tired though not to get drunk.
The sun was still high in the sky as I walked out of Gwangjang Market using the same path I used to enter. It turned out that I didn’t spend as much time as I thought I did in the market. Anyway, I started walking again alongside Cheonggyecheon.
(To be continued in Part 2)