One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to wander around the local markets and sample as much food as I can. Korea in particular was an amazing market meal experience for me, partly because I know and love the food. Much of the stuff in these markets I can find in America, but I found that everything was so much tastier here.
In Seoul there’s the Namdaemun market. I spent the better part of a day eating my way through this market. The first thing I had there was the ddeokbokki, which is rice cakes stir fried in spicy sauce. The ddeokbokki was okay, but the best part of this meal was the bit of fish cake soup that came with it. All together it was super filling for less than $3. In hindsight though, I wish I had eaten less of it so that I would have room for other stuff later.
These kimchi dumplings were ten for 5000 won. I didn’t have room in my belly for ten of them, so I asked for one, and they charged me 1000 won. In hindsight I should’ve just bought the ten, and saved them for later because they were incredibly good. It was a revelation to me, how good these could be when fresh, because I’ve only had the frozen ones before.
Grandma’s pig feet stall, complete with a legit grandma. I’m a big fan of pig’s feet, and it’s been a while since I’ve had one, so this was really satisfying to me. Apparently it’s pretty popular in Seoul, since I saw a lot of pig’s feet restaurants and stalls in Seoul.
In the heart of the Namdaemun market there’s a tiny hole in the wall restaurant that specializes in kal-gook-su. Literally translated it means knife noodles. I eat these noodles from time to time in America, but I’m pretty sure the noodles are store bought and made by machine. This place still makes them and cuts them with a knife by hand. It was super tasty, for the equivalent of about $4 you get all this food, a huge bowl of kal-gook-su, a bowl of spicy naengmyun (cold noodles) and a bowl of barley rice.
In Busan I went to the famous Jagalchi market with my nephew to grab lunch. There are some foods there that I didn’t see in the Seoul markets. They had spicy pig skin, sunji soup (sunji is coagulated cow’s blood), and gamja-tang (literally translated this is potato soup, traditionally it’s made with pig spine). My nephew and I split a bowl of sunji soup. Typically I’m not a fan of food made with blood, but this was quite tasty. The lady was super nice too, she refilled our bowl for us, even though we were splitting a 3500 won bowl (equivalent of about $3). In hindsight I wish I had some of the gamja-tang too, since I like that stuff. I figure if something I don’t typically like tastes good here, stuff that I normally like should taste incredibly awesome. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough stomach space.
Jagalchi market is famous for seafood. There are literally seafood stalls as far as the eye can sea. It’s all super fresh, and much of it is still alive. Many of the stalls had little restaurants in the back, so you can pick out the seafood and they’ll make you a meal right on the spot. You could get the famous live octopus here. I was planning to eat it here, but I chickened out at the last minute when I saw how lively they were.
My nephew and spent some time just wandering through the Jagalchi market looking at the various fish for sale. We were pretty full, so we weren’t planning to eat anything. All of a sudden I heard this lady yelling (in Korean), “If it’s not good I won’t take the money.” So I stopped to take a look at the fish her husband was grilling. It certainly smelled good.
Before I knew it, this lady started dragging me and my nephew into the little restaurant behind the stall. So I’m thinking okay, I’ll order just one piece of fish, just to try it. But they said the minimum I could order was a meal for two people. So at this point I’m thinking, “Dammit I’m about to get ripped off, this is gonna be really expensive and probably isn’t gonna be very good.”
So we proceed to order the minimum for two people, which ended up being 20,000 won (about $18). At this point, I’m thinking “Shit, I just got ripped off really badly.” But then as my nephew and I start eating, we find that the fish is super tasty, and the meal came with a lot of side dishes and a bowl of miyuk gook (seaweed soup) that’s also quite good. And by the time we’re done eating, the little restaurant was completely full. Whether it’s from people that the lady dragged in, I’m not sure, but everyone in the place seemed very happy to be there. And in the end I was pretty happy too. I left with a smile on my face, so when I asked the lady if I could take a picture of her, she was all smiles too.
I enjoyed everything I ate at the Jagalchi market so much that I ended up returning to the market. My main mission at the market the second time around was to eat some raw fish. There’s a section of the market where there’s a ton of hwae-jib (raw fish houses) lined up one after another. How do you pick which one to go to in this situation? I ended up going into one that seemed to have a good number of customers and ordered hwae-dub-bap, which is basically the Korean version of chirashi, raw fish over rice. The fish is incredibly fresh, they chop it up right there in front of the stall, and it comes with a few other seafood side dishes.
Almost all of the meals that I ate alone in Korea was at the markets. There was so much tasty stuff, sadly I just didn’t have the stomach capacity to eat everything I wanted to try. And one thing I liked was that each market seemed to have its own regional specialties. If I ever get a chance to spend a good block of time in Korea, I’d like to just travel around the country and eat at a market in each town along the way.