Street Food 'Hoods': Where to eat when you’re on the go

by Joe McPherson
Seoul Magazine

As the weather cools, Korea’s street food carts emerge. They have a presence all year long, but the winter brings them on in larger packs with foods that keep your hands warm and your mouth scorching. Korea’s street food industry has been thriving despite local government efforts to curtail them, arguing that their makeshift setups are an eyesore in the city. In some parts of northern Seoul, vendors have been required to use standardized, dull-colored street carts, and in Gangnam, a video has surfaced of thugs trashing street food carts because the vendors were taking up street space. That’s a shame, as Korea’s street food is one of its main charms to tourists.

One of the worries that some tourists have is food safety, despite the fact that tales of food sickness from Korean street food are rare. The trick is to get street food from well trafficked areas; these carts are busy, and their food is always fresh. Any cart that isn’t up to sanitary standards would not last long in one of those neighborhoods.

There are multiple guides outlining what street foods are available in Seoul, so that info does not need to be rehashed here. Instead, this is a guide to some of the more interesting and innovative food streets. All are within easy walking distance of the subway and are easy to access. My only advice is if you don’t know what it is or what to do, just point and smile, and signal how many you want. The vendor will just hold up her hand to tell you how much it is. It’s the finest of dining.

Insa-dong 인사동

In this classical neighborhood, one can’t help but expect the classics. Some trends have started in this area, such as Chuncheon-style dalk gocchi, which is fresh chicken grilled on skewers. There is a choice of sauces, ranging from barbecue to extremely hot—the hot one is a killer. But the simpler offering—seasoned with just a small amount of salt—is also quite elegant and tasty.

Ddong bbang, or “poop bread,” also figures into Insa-dong street food, particularly in the multileveled Samziegil Building in the center of the street. It’s a basic pancake batter filled with sweetened red beans in the shape of a pile of dog doo: yes, it’s a stunt for the kiddies, but it does actually taste good.

The one street food item Insa-dong is especially famous for is hoddeok—yeasty dough is stuffed with brown sugar and nuts and fried in an oil bath. What makes Insa-dong’s unique is the addition of cornmeal to their dough, giving it a crunchy nuttiness that people have stood in long lines for.

The neighborhood is also known for initiating the cane ice cream trend. A Korean twist on a Western novelty, a “cane” cone is simply a puffed corn tube shaped into a “J” and stuffed with soft-serve ice cream. Warning: there is no non-pornographic way of eating one of these.

The street food scene in Insa-dong starts booming in the evenings from mid-week to Saturday. On the weekends, expect to see the cocktail-in-a-bag guy. They’re strong and cheap.

Myeong-dong 명동

The ‘hood known for its trendy makeup and clothing shops is also known for its trendy street food. Mostly active on weekends, some of the less traditional trends start here, particularly the Tornado Potato. A single peeled potato is cut in a spiral, it’s then skewered and fried to look like a giant screw before being dusted with flavored powder.

Myeong-dong also launched the giant ice cream trend around 10 years ago. Expert ice cream scoopers serve soft-serve in cones, squeezing out extrusions about as long as one’s forearm.

Meat-on-a-stick vendors tend to find their way here, be it barbecued chicken or handmade mini sausages; the street food in the area is a bit more protein-laden compared to other areas.

Noryangjin 노량진

When people think of street food, the name Noryangjin rarely pops into mind. “That’s the fish market, right?”

The area is also home to a lot of special schools training law students to take the bar exam. These are poor and hungry students, but they’re also a bit older, so the usual tteokbokki stand won’t satisfy them the same way as when they were kids.

A tent city of stick-to-your-ribs street food has cropped up here, just across the street from the fish market, specializing in meals in bowls. A popular must-try is the poktan bap, or “bomb rice.” It’s like a bibimbap but with a few different ingredients, such as fish roe, coconut and walnuts. A fresh fried egg is thrown on top, and it’s all mixed in the most bowel-scorching hot sauce. Bring a beverage.

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