Kwangjang market – a special treat in Seoul
Malls shmalls, seen one, seen them all.
Then there are the markets especially set up and sanitized for tourists and well-off locals. They can be fun, depending on the level of standardization, ratio of cheap Chinese to local products and the number of locals that step foot in them.
But then, there are the traditional markets that have spawned organically and developed into fitting perfectly with the needs of the populous surrounding it. They are not there to impress, instead they are simply functional, comfortable, having withstood the test of time and changed just enough to not be left behind. And not an inch more.
Just a whisper of the latter market will have us on our feet and out the door. We have seen a lot so far, but a few have earned a special spot in our traveling hearts – Kwangjang in Seoul became one of them (also known as Gwangjang, but I will use the spelling used on the entrance).
More than a hundred years in existence, the place works like a buzzing bee, effortless and practical. As soon as we entered, the energy engulfed us and the sight of the first pojangmacha (food stall) assured us we are in the right place.
We could barely make it 20 meters in, before succumbing to the smile of a woman selling mayak gimbap. The close relatives of sushi rolls are filled with rice carrots and yellow pickles, which may not sound like much, but after being brushed with sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds it turns into a morish delight.
The gimbap comes with cold tea, light brown slightly spicy sauce and my personal favorite is a cup of hot spicy boullion from the pot that sits to the very left of the picture. Tongue numbing perfection.
After three servings, we barely managed to pull ourselves from there, only to be met by stall after stall of vendors flipping bindaetteok over sizzling oily hotplates. This is what the market is most famous for and you cannot turn your eyelash without seeing someone eating or making it.
This mung bean pancake is made by grinding the beans and then usually mixing the resulting mush with sprouts, kimchi and egg and finishing the whole thing by frying it to crisp.
Our order came from another smiling woman and was delicious, especially with the accompanying soy, chili and onion sauce.
Fish and a wide variety of sea creatures of all kinds find their demise here and this is if we forget all the other animals that make it into bowls and flavour the air around. None of it is hidden, with pig’s heads, ears, trotters and whatnots positioned like prized trophies on the stalls.
We, on the other hand, could not stop smiling.
The well oiled movements of the vendors mixing big pots and handling firing holes coupled with the crowds enjoying the results of that labor are intoxicating. The hand nailed benches are surely not that comfortable and the safety of the whole set up wont pass even the first page of a boring western inspection report. But thank goodness we are not there, because the food was pouring, the General’s sax was playing, the people were clapping and it was so fun in its freaking basicness!
Its not all about the pojongmacha in Kwangjang though. In the upper floor are the old respectable silk and fabric dealers that supply a lot of the other markets in the city. Fresh food is also available from even more smiling women.
And kimchi sellers take up almost a whole corridor of the market. Although most people think of kimchi as being a fermented cabbage side dish, it can be made from variety of vegetables and the array of possibilities is plain obvious here.
We couldnt resist another sizzling cake that fronted us and tried one.
I am not sure of the name, but it was sticky rice filled with slightly sweetened white bean and toasted on the hot grill. The one bite I managed to try was subtly delicious, the rest was approved by the children.
The kids insisted, so before we left we had to get back for some more mayak gimbap and then, full to the brim, we left, only to look forward to another visit.
Because just one stop here cannot possibly be enough.