The streets of Seoul — and many other Korean cities — are orderly in
comparison to their helter-skelter counterparts across Asia. Habits born of
old Confucian precepts mean that eating and drinking while you walk, or sit
on a bench, is somewhat looked down upon. But street food is still very much a part of the culture here. And you’ll find just as many of the most iconic versions of local dishes lined up along the 10-lane boulevards as you will in, say, the maddening back alleys of the older and more historic
neighborhoods like Samcheong-dong.
The best place to look for street food is in congested areas. Popularity breeds vendors. College areas, shopping centers, temples, markets, and high-rises are all beehives of such activity. This type of food can range from snacks to sweet fixes to light meals. They are most often served from canopied wagons or pushcarts. Diners saunter up, point at what they like, and either stand near a makeshift counter to eat their purchase or sit on high stools, lit at night by neon strips. There are also sweet vendors, translated as flour food, who tend to attract flocks of sugar-loving youngsters with deep-fried delicacies stuffed with things like red beans or sesame. Here’s what to look for:
Tops among must-eat Korean street food is tteokbogi. The name refers to the cylindrical and not un-pasta like tubes made from rice flour that are the base of the dish. They are a milky white color, chewy, and real sponges for
flavor. Vendors keep them in vast dishes swathed in a lush sauce made from red pepper and tossed with heaps of crunchy vegetables. The mere sight or thought of this addictively sweet-spicy dish is enough to send most Koreans into a tizzy. There is actually an entire alley in Seoul, called Sindang-dong and near the Sindong Subway Station on Line 2, dedicated to
Gimbap and sundae also make fine meal substitutions. The former bears the influence of the Japanese palate and yet has been Koreanized with telltale earthen and salty-strong tastes. Gimbap is more or less a riff on sushi — boiled rice seasoned with sesame oil and salt, wrapped in laver with strips of carrot, cucumber, spinach, egg, and pickled radish. Cheese and ham is often added, and these are consumed en masse by office workers and weekend shoppers. Sundae is more of an acquired taste, a very traditional sausage forged from pig intestine, bean curd, translucent potato noodles, and the ever-present vegetables. The taste is actually quite mild, sweetly meaty and elegant when cut on the bias, thinly, and presented in seductive oval shapes. And yes, there is a whole ‘town’ devoted to sundae in Sillim-dong near the Silim Station on Line 2 of the Seoul subway.
The last two of the archetypal street foods in Seoul — and, by extension,
Korea — are twigim and mandu. Mandu are the Korean take on that most beloved of stuffed foods. With their Chinese-descended ease for fashioning such packets and their national talent for giving things a timeless yet accessible taste, the Koreans may make the best dumplings in Asia. Theirs are plump, stuffed with comforting fillings like kimchi or pork and manage
to have chew, spiciness, or herbiness all at once. They come with a vinegary dipping sauce and emerge from giant silver steamers as gaping as the new World Cup stadiums now strewn around the countries. Watch the locals to see how to maneuver local chopsticks, silver and slippery, to eat them.
As for twigim? Tempura-like in their light bubbly bread casing, they are a deep-fried favorite made with vegetables, cuttlefish, shrimp or sesame leaf. This savory, like almost all on Korean streets, is approachable in flavor, easy to access, and very expressive of the local palate.
Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur,
East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.