Some of South Korea’s best loved dishes are sold from giant iron woks at open-air stalls or the front of carts, with people standing about and huddling around to order and eat. Today, I’ll be sharing with you about a few of these, and what to look out for in your hunt for great street food, so let’s begin! #1 Odeng 오뎅 Also known to many of us as fish cake, these are the cheapest street food and stalls dishing out sticks from a rolling boil are a dime a dozen. In general, there’s no need to be too picky about odeng since it is a fuss-free type of food and does not vary spectacularly in quality, but join in and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals for a truly authentic experience (and also because they know where the broth is better). #2 Tteokbokki 떡볶이 Probably the number 1 export to Korean restaurants around the world, Tteokbokki is famed as one of the “must-tries” when in Korea. Tteokbokki is a springy, chewy and dense rice cake that comes drenched in a spicy red pepper paste sauce that you will find so “Korean” (they love this sauce and use it on many things). And yes, it can look rather messy, but don’t let that deter you! Again, it’s all in the sauce so go where the locals go. #3 Hotteok 호떡 I could eat 10 of these in one sitting. Hotteok is a sweet Korean Pancake that is fried then cut open and filled with a mixture of sunflower seeds and brown sugar, and often folded and then squeezed into a paper cup for easier handling. Always go to those where they’re frying them fresh (i.e. avoid those that have been pre-fried and left to sit), because that way the batter is tasty and with the slightest bit of crust, and the brown sugar caramelises between. You will smile, and so will the kids. A lot of the places pre-fry but there’s a great one just across the road from the Haeundae market along Jungdong 1-ro; a small shop about in a row of shophouses. #4 Mandu 만두 Freshly fried and off the grill, these are basically a sort of dumpling and can be either filled with meat or vegetables or both. This one at Nampodong near the Jagalchi Market in Busan came with a side of finely sliced and crisp cabbage in a tasty spicy (note the expression of the guy in green) sauce. On a cold day, this is just heavenly heat in the tummy, and is definitely something you have to try. The key to mandu as well as a lot of the other street food, is to make sure they have a busy business and are making it fresh – otherwise they’ll just be doughy and chewy. So now I know what I need to try, but where do I go to get them? They’re all over Korea, but if you want to try multiple of these in a single place, Nampodong and Gwangbokdong in Busan are great. In Seoul, head to Namdaemun which opens till the wee hours. Namdaemun is also a great place to do souvenir shopping because prices are easily 1/5 or less of the price you’d pay at the airport duty free! 😮
Category: Korean – Casual – Gukbap (Pork and Rice Soup)
Dwaeji Gukbap is a specialty of the Gyeongsangnam province, which the Southeastern part of South Korea. It’s a very very simple, unpretentious dish, and a comfort food in all aspects – I can’t tell you how good this tastes especially when you’ve been out in the cold! Since Busan is supposed to have some of the best renditions of this dish, I stalked out what was considered to be the best one, and made sure we stopped over for dinner right after our visit to Busan museum.
887-1, Daeyeon1-dong or 35-1 UN Pyeonghwa-ro, Nam-gu, Busan, South Korea, Tel: 051-628-7020
It’s right within walking distance from Busan museum, and better still, right along the straight route back to the metro station. I was obediently going in the direction of the red pin in Google maps until we chanced upon the store front at 35-1 UN Pyeonghwa-ro from which I immediately recognised the logo of the two pigs with red chef hats. A row of flower arrangements and wreaths lined its entrance, and the interior was clean and spacious – nothing like what other reviews had said to be “extremely crowded” and having “a long queue even at 3pm”. As it turns out Ssangdoongi Dwaeji Gukbap is so popular that this was its newly-opened 2nd store.
So inexpensive! They had a sort of hotpot version with vegetable wraps but we went with what Ssangdoongi was famous for – the original gukbap at 6000KRW. Since this was Korea, we did it K-style and called for a makgeolli at 3000KRW to go with.
To Go: Yes you should, and go to the newer restaurant if you want to skip the queue
Food is fuss-free, very affordable, and great in the tummy on a cold day. With rigid-looking wooden tables and chairs and a metal-sheet counter top at the far end, ambience is obviously not their forte – but then again, who cares? The original restaurant (nearer the metro and about 5 mins from the newer one) is more compact with a more old-school feel, but really, walk that extra 5 mins if you want to skip the queue.
Like well-behaved pupils, we eagerly flavoured the dish with the garlic chives, tiny salty shrimp (which we happily called out as cincalok) and the red pepper paste as instructed by the waitress. The serving of pork is generous for the price – we kept magically unearthing pork from below the rice – and tender, with fats I’d imagine contains collagen which is all the Asian rage about being good for the skin right now. The broth was light, very tasty and when had together with the rice, reminded me of teochew porridge back at home.
We took a 3.5hr ride on the KTX to Busan, a busy port city on the Southern coast of South Korea, where we were to spend the next 4 nights. If you were to look at the map, Busan has 3 parts of its coast that juts out a little into the ocean – that’s also where most of the attractions are concentrated. The Busan museum (부산시립박물관) in Namgu, on the middle jutter-outer, has 3 levels of sprawling exhibitions from displays of artefacts – anything from bowls to tools to rust-eaten swords to life-sized mock-ups of blacksmith shops and fishmonger stalls.
I personally am not really a history buff, so these didn’t interest me at all (unless we’re talking about European palaces, which is a different story). Rather, we were there because the museum has a Cultural Experience hall at which you could try on traditional outfits like hanbok, Gonryongpo, Ikseongwan, Wosam, etc. And also had a Tea ceremony where we could try our hand at making tea – which, might I add, is a very intentional, delicate and lengthy process full of repetition and small hand gestures and placements, but constituted a whole lot of fun learning.
What most people might not know is that in the right season, Busan Museum has a gorgeous outdoor garden which you can slip into from the path on the right. We chanced upon it because we were killing some time before the tea ceremony at 4.30pm. I remember the scene unfolding before my eyes – cherry blossom trees in full bloom, lined up along the broad stone pathway all the way to the top of the hill, a heavy sprinkling of pale pink ‘snow’ strewn underfoot – to which I found that I could not resist staring at the ground.
948-1 Daeyeon 4(sa)-dong, Nam-gu, Busan, South Korea
Opens from 9am to 8pm daily (Closed on Mondays); Tea Ceremony Timings 10.30am, 1.30pm, 3pm and 4.30pm (Please note that you have to be there in person to book the slot).