Traditional markets in Korea and the joy of shopping

by Stefanie Corbitt
Stripes Korea

In the U.S. we have farmer’s markets, market days or cooperative markets. If you’re a Suzanne Collins’ fan, the Hob in The Hunger Games brings to mind my idea of a traditional market.

When growing up in rural Maryland, we had a “Sale Barn” where each Tuesday, farmers, vendors and locals would gather to sell, buy or trade.  There was an auction house as well as a snack bar.  The items sold would vary from fresh eggs, produce, and baked goods to farming tools, used clothes and bicycles.

With these preconceived notions in mind, I headed to the Songtan 4-9 market. That is, on the calendar days of the month that contain a 4 or 9, such as the 24th or 19th, street vendors clog the streets in front of the permanent store fronts. 

The entourage included my son, my partner in adventure, Mayra and her daughter.  Overwhelming is the only word that can describe the chaos and bustle. Laid out on the side walk, the halmoni (grandmothers) had spread blue tarps which were heaped with various types of greens. 

Some I could recognize, garlic, green onions, and napa cabbage.  Mushrooms, bulbous roots and dried berries were stacked on another.  Some ladies worked to clean the vegetables of their roots or soft spots while others bargained with potential buyers quick to bag up the produce and attract a new customer.

Lining the center of the road were pushcarts or wheel barrows turned into countertops used for sales. Many contained socks, scarves or hats.  Another was filled with all types of ladies garments. A variety of shoes graced yet another. The single file “shopping” lane became clogged because of our gawking. 

One shopper crossed her arms and shoved me out of her way.  Another used her shopping cart as a makeshift push broom to move the children out of her way. The not so subtle suggestion prodded us to move further into the market! 

Prior to going to the market, I was schooled by some friends that such gestures weren’t from being malicious or mean, but simply a means to an end.  Basically I was told to not be offended by the actions because it wasn’t intended in that manner. In any event, we were more mindful of our toes (which had been run over by loaded down shoppers’ carts) and our ability as a foursome to halt traffic.

Next we came upon rows of merchants selling fish. Many of the fish were tied and dried on a string, if not for the obvious food item, these could have been a type of art. Merchants also had tanks of live fish, shellfish and mountains of snail like creatures for sale.

A permanent store fish monger assisted a customer in the selection and purchase of a small sting ray. After complimenting the customer on a fine selection the monger summarily dispatched the ray’s head from its body. The flipping, flopping sting ray body sans head sent us scampering.

We next approached the butcher; this was a pork vendor as was evident from the pig ears, snouts and tails that were on display. While I cannot speak much Korean, it was obvious he was attempting to tell me it was a freshly slaughtered animal. Good information! 

The fruit stands were next to the fish and live plants and flowers completed the scene.  Then, it started all over again!  The street stretched on and vendor after vendor each staked out his or her space. Did I mention the word overwhelming? 

This is just one example of the local traditional market in Songtan. Each town or city has their own variation and unique identity. If you venture to Seoul, there are a plethora of specialty markets: Namdaemun full of clothing, dishes, folk art, flowers, gift bags; Bangsan Market a baker’s delight for ingredients and bake ware; Toy Alley-no explanation needed; and the Fabric Market outside of Dondaemun Station! 

Of course there are the retail giants such as EMart, Home Plus, Lotte Mart, and while they mirror our Western versions of shopping, take some time, venture into the traditional market and experience Korea!

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