It’s been a bit nutty the last couple of weeks, having to work late nights and weekends. My workplace’s fiscal year just ended, so it’s been a blur of year-end reports, calculations, and so many Excel formulas that make my eyes glaze over. It’s time like these that I wish I could just pop out quickly, ’round the corner, and grab a delicious snack for dirt cheap to keep me fueled while burning the midnight oil. Alas… no such options exist here, so it’s especially around the last few days that I’ve been really longing for Korean street food. I’ve also been writing so many reports and having to use proper grammar and terminology, so I thought I’d write this post about one of my favourite things to take a brain break and change things up a little. Plus, I’m trying not to fall back into my old habit of neglecting my blog when things in life are busy.
So, street food. What’s not to love about it? Maybe the diarrhea that inevitably hits you after eating questionable “meat” in that dark alleyway from the guy who wiped his nose on his sleeve (not that I have any experience in this). What I love most is the convenience and the comfort factor. It’s pretty obvious to me now that even after 26 years of living in Canada, my tastebuds and food preferences are thoroughly Korean. Combine that with my general laziness and nonchalant approach to sticking with proper meals, street food suits me just perfectly.
The one thing I did notice was that there seemed to be less street food stalls and definitely less 포장마차 (“pojangmacha”, small tented street stalls). I swear I remember seeing a lot more the last time I was in Korea. We only saw a handful this time around. I’m not sure if it’s an overall trend, but I hope the street food staples never go away.
Surprisingly enough, during my visit I felt that I didn’t eat enough street food. I think it’s because we were always on the go, rushing from one place to the next, that it was difficult to just stop and eat (as crazy as that sounds, since street food is well, perfect for people on the go). I think we were also unprepared for the general frenetic pace that the city moves in and the large crowds of people that are virtually everywhere. Whatever street food I did get to eat, however, was truly worth it (except for one thing that was so-so, which I’ll get to later).
One of the true classics of street food is, of course, 떡볶이 (“tteokbokki”), morsels of rice cake simmered in spicy sauce. The spiciness really depends on the place that makes it and in general, I found the tteokbokki slightly on the “too spicy” side for my palate (I think I’m just a major wuss when it comes to spicy food in general, and in that regard I’m not that Korean). Tteokbokki is, and always will be, my most favourite street food. It’s hearty and comforting, and so affordable. We also got some fish cakes in broth (오뎅, “oh-daeng”), which is a must have with tteokbokki. This was our first street food meal, at a Jaws Tteokbokki stand in Myungdeong. We even got the authentic dining experience by eating at a cheap plastic table outside. The best!
Next we have 호떡 (hotteok), a pancake filled with nothing but deliciousness. It’s deep-fried in oil to get that super crispy, tasty exterior and the filling was a mixture of honey, brown sugar, chopped peanuts, and cinnamon. They serve it in a cup so that you don’t end up spilling hot, gooey filling all over yourself. These are easy to find and I paid less than a dollar for this piece of heaven. This was also in Myungdeong, after our tteokbokki and oh-daeng meal.
Another one of my favourite sweet treats are these walnut-shaped cookies, filled with sweet red bean paste and a whole walnut. I only remember being able to find these at random bus depots as a kid (my aunts and uncles always bought a bag for me when we were traveling somewhere by bus), so it was a surprise to see an actual brick & mortar store selling them. I guess they’re “designer” walnut cookies, in a way, but they were so delicious that I bought a dozen and ate them all in the same night. Ok, so I gave away at least 3, so don’t give me that look.
So this is the item that I thought was so-so. It’s a variation of tteokbokki in that it’s on a skewer. It’s called tteok-kkochi (the kkochi part referring to the stick), and rather than the rice cakes being boiled, they’re fried and then slathered with a tteokbokki sauce. I was so excited to see this at Samcheong-dong where we were wandering around after having patbingsu. I loved the crispy rice cakes, but the sauce was really meh. It was like a slightly spiced, sticky sweet ketchup. I was expecting something more savoury, so even to my palate that is used to weird sweet & savoury combinations, this didn’t work so well for me. I wish I could’ve found another stall that made these so I could see if the sauce is a normal thing.
We visited the Bongeunsa temple in the Gangnam district one day and came across a tented area that was bustling with ajummas. It was crazy HOT in there – like a freaking sauna with all the humidity trapped inside – but we were instantly drawn to the ajummas dishing out tteokbokki and 도토리묵 (dotorimuk), which is acorn jelly. I know that sounds weird – acorn jelly – but I swear it’s one of the best things ever. It’s like jello, but savoury. That description might’ve made it worse, actually, but I don’t know how else to describe it. We found a shady area outside to escape the heat and enjoyed these two snacks immensely before having a quick wander around the temple.
These stalls are easiest to find in outdoor markets and during the evenings, when the crowds descend for shopping, dining, and general debauchery. It’s also incredibly affordable, so you get a ton of value for what you pay. It’s an essential part of the Korean food culture and an experience that no visitor should miss.
Looking at these photos brings back all the sights, sounds, and smells. Next time around, I’ll be sure to hit more of these street food stands, and maybe I’ll even find one that has good tteok-kkochi.