Gorging on Gwangjang

For over 100 years, Seoulites have escaped winter’s chill at Gwangjang Market. Today, it remains one of the best places to grab a delicious meal, find a great bargain, and rub shoulders with a diverse cross-section of everyday folks.

January is Korea’s coldest month. It’s when a Siberian high pressure system brings both gorgeous blue skies and stubbornly below-freezing temperatures. In search of warmth, Seoulites often head to Gwangjang Market, a shoppers’ and foodies’ paradise where both a hot meal and the warmth of authentic Korean hospitality are readily available.

Established in 1905, Gwangjang is Korea’s longest-running public market and also one of its largest. Far bigger than it seems, some 5,000 shops are located between Jongno Street’s 4-ga and 5-ga intersections.

For over a century, Gwangjang has been known for fine textiles. Today, wholesalers from better-known markets like Dongdaemun and Namdaemun arrive early each morning to purchase wares for manufacture and resale. Retail customers come in search of the market’s hanbok shops, where tailors create bespoke versions of Korea’s national costume at discount up to 30%.

In recent years, Gwangjang has also emerged as Seoul’s premier destination for vintage clothing. Although retro boutiques are popular in several of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, only Gwangjang’s upper level can boast 300 shops selling everything from men’s couture to women’s accessories imported from Japan, Europe, and North America.

Nevertheless, Gwangjang is best known for food. High-brow Korean palace cuisine it is not, but it probably is Seoul’s best single location to enjoy the sheer diversity of Korean street food. The market’s central arteries burst with lines of carts carrying vats of simmering 떡볶이 [tteokbokki] rice cakes, high stacks of pig’s trotters, ropes of 순대 [sundae] blood sausage and bowls of red bean porridge, called 팥죽 [phatjuk]. The bright light from the naked bulbs that hang from the rafters is made hazy by thick clouds of steam.

Among this smorgasbord of Korean comfort food, 마약 김밥 [mayak gimbap] warrants special mention. The so-called “narcotic gimbap” is a miniature version of Korea’s ubiquitous rice and vegetable roll. The name comes from the assertion that one 2,500-won plate of 12 rolls dipped in spicy mustard and soy sauce won’t be enough.

Controlled substances aaside, the undisputed king of Gwangjang’s snack stalls is 빈대떡 [bindaetteok]. With a texture somewhat akin to hash browns, most of the vendors are located at the market’s main intersection. At its epicenter, in all directions you can watch as skilled hands fry plate-sized rounds made from crushed mung beans and assorted vegetables atop a large skillet. Once fried to a golden crisp, patrons dip pieces into soy sauce flavored with vinegar and onions, before washing it down with Korea’s signature rice liquor, makgeolli.

Around dusk, Gwangjang Market’s hum of activity is ratcheted up a few notches. Groups of office workers, students, tourists and seniors rub shoulders atop wooden picnic benches wrapped in heated blankets. As they eat, a handful of eccentric market regulars starts to appear. Among them, “The General” dons a top hat and plays the saxophone. Another nattily-dressed elderly man may arrive with accordion, portable amplifier and microphone in tow, just in case any diners want an impromptu karaoke session.

Sitting amongst this rich mix, it’s obvious that Gwangjang retains Korea’s most quintessential charms – delicious food and warm-hearted people.

 

Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, January 2012

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