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! 😮
Our taxi came to a halt behind a row of cars as the light turned red. A little girl, barely seven or eight, was standing next to the front door of the car in front of us, speaking to the driver. She was motioning with her hands, showing off something. I leaned over to the right and caught a glimpse of orange and yellow. They were flowers. She’s selling flowers in the middle of a main road. The intersecting traffic slows, and the drivers ready for the green. She turns, swinging a pole with garlands of flowers hanging from its ends, and quickly dashes to the road divider just as the vehicles begin to pick up their pace and get back in tempo. As we pass, I notice her head bent at a slightly downward angle, her shoulders slightly slumped, her feet grubby. I noticed that she had no shoes.
I remember the countless number of street-side stalls as being one of the most striking things about Bangkok. We would walk down pavements along shop fronts which felt more like narrow back alleys. The street-side stalls formed a blockade between us and the road, and would go on endlessly – light cotton apparel, thai boxer shorts, cheap plastic sunglasses stacked high, in between which were food stalls – letting in no air and no light. People walked past in a constant viscous stream, squeezing past each other to go in opposite directions, while groups of bored-looking Thai girls sat outside massage parlours, fanning themselves in the midday heat, calling out every once in a while to prospective customers an invite to come in.
Bangkok was everything I’d expected it to be. Crowded, lively, chaotic. In Platinum Mall, you would see that people from all around the world have come, dragging huge plastic trolley bags going from shop to shop to source for bargain apparel to sell at a profit. It was energetic yet exhausting to be part of, and we ended up finding solace at Starbucks.
Food in Bangkok was cheap and readily available, although I did end up rushing to the toilet about 4 times a day (which, by the way, is not usual). Every once in a while, smells of food would be interrupted by the smell of sewage coming from the gutters and drains, and would inspire cringed noses and a quicker walk.
Whilst touristy, Jaktujak Weekend Market was a highlight of my trip. The sections selling apparel did not appeal to us but we did find much to our fancy at the other end of the market where they sold dried food items ranging from mango to ginger, and also aromatic oils of bergamot, rose, and lemongrass, packed into display-worthy bottles forged from glass. Leaving Jaktujak, cabs were lined up alongside the road near the exit, their drivers standing by the curb. A cabby approached us to ask where we were headed. Upon hearing Sukhumvit, he made a face, waved and said that it was “very very far” but would take us there for 600THB. I’d seen the map; it wasn’t that far at all. We walked farther from Jaktujak and got into a metered cab which ended at 150THB.
Sad to say, the cabs were a major reason for my schlocky impression of Bangkok. We once boarded a cab waved in by a Bo.lan staff from the road which claimed he was on “meter”. It was a sort of van that looked more like it belonged in a zoo; heavily dented, with masking tape around the handles and on the doors where parts were on the verge of falling off. We were even more appalled at the state of its interior – cans stuffed between the top of the seat and the ceiling to prevent it from collapsing, a stool supporting the seat where my mother sat, and a lot of rubbish everywhere else. We were laughing about how shocked the hotel staff would be at seeing this “sampan” (a Chinese flat-bottomed boat, but literally meaning “3 planks”) come into their lobby, when my dad noticed the meter was off. The driver then insisted we would pay 250THB, and when we refused, veered to the side of the road and forced us out- but not before he demanded 50THB from me.
I didn’t know much about the Somboon Seafood scam until I got back to Singapore after experiencing it first hand. We’d tried to get to the restaurant several times, and every cabby we’d encountered said there was no Somboon Seafood, only some variation pronounced Som-boon-dee. We eventually got into a cab whose driver said he knew where it was, only to inform us halfway that “Somboon Seafood doesn’t open on Sundays. I take you to Somboondee. When my friends say they want Somboon, I bring them to Somboondee because Somboondee is better! I know the boss – he will give you 10% discount because you’re my friend.” The liar took us down some quiet gravel road where a wire light was poorly bent an attached to a flimsy fence to form “somboondee” in a wiggly writing. He lowered the side window and hollered to the owner, who’d been sitting at a table smoking and didn’t look at all like he’d been expecting guests, and straight away we knew something was amiss. The “restaurant” was practically empty except for a poor family of four seated in the dark, all of whom promptly looked up, surprised, stared at us miserably and totally halted their meal. The seafood selection was miserable, the prices steep, and the whole place was barely even lit. It was eerie, and we promptly said we’d had too similar a meal the previous night and started to walk briskly back out to the main road. The cabby had parked by the side, and upon seeing us, ran up to us to ask why we were leaving. As we walked, the discount steadily increased from 10% to 15% to 20%. We kept walking.
Unfortunately, Bangkok just wasn’t my kind of city and left much to be desired, but it still could be yours, just as I’ve had friends who’ve gone back twice or thrice. While there was beauty in some of it, such as their piousness and cuisine, and of course, it is an inexpensive holiday destination, I especially wished the cabbies were more friendly and honest (to me, they’re sometimes tour guides who can teach you about the city, and are often the first locals you encounter extensively upon setting foot in a country; the ones in London were fantastic) – that would’ve helped preserve the impression that I’d gone to Bangkok with but sadly departed without, and that is “the land of a thousand smiles”.
Jatujak Weekend Market is one of the world’s largest weekend markets, with 27 sections and more than 15,000 stalls. You can find anything and everything from household items, to fragrances, jewellery, food, clothes, and handicrafts (the one shown below is AMAZING). This was my first visit to Jatujak, and honestly, I found it to be overcrowded and touristy. Many shops sell similar things, so it’s challenging to discern between them and even if you wanted to go back, you might just get lost in the maze of shops! Nonetheless, it remains a must-see when in Bangkok, so here’s a little taste (: