SEOUL — On the streets here, find your next meal by listening for the sizzle. Street food is everywhere, and food carts and stalls selling a short list of foodstuffs or specializing in only one item attract long queues at all hours of the day. A pojangmacha — a Korean word that translates as “covered wagon,” and refers to a movable, street-side restaurant draped in tarps — offers more of a complete meal: set menus, a greater number of options, more complicated dishes, and, often, tables for customers.
Street food plays a significant part in Seoul’s culture. Students might stop by their favorite stall for a quick, cheap bite after school or before going out for the evening. Crowds of professionals will descend after the workday ends, and on into the night. And then there are the late comers: taxi drivers and other graveyard shift workers who appreciate a hot meal or snack, at any hour.
Marja Vongerichten, wife of celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, hosted and co-produced the 2011 TV show “Kimchi Chronicles,” a travelogue-style exploration of Korean food, including street food. Marja Vongerichten was born in Korea (her mother is Korean and her father an African-American serviceman) and adopted and raised by a family in the United States. She learned about her culture through Korean food. She is also author of a cookbook based on the series, “The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen.”
“I think street food is so popular because it’s cheap, quick, and it’s just like the flavors of home when you eat it,” says Vongerichten on the phone from New York, where she lives. “Every culture has their own street food, and it’s interesting to get the story behind what makes street foods popular. I find that in Korea, you walk around, and you end up eating about five times a day — it’s like, wow, I want to have a little bit of that!”
Options range from the familiar, such as dumplings and sweet potato fries, to more exotic foods. Perhaps the most popular is tteokbokki, stubby tube-shaped rice cakes served in a sauce made with gochujang, a popular fermented hot pepper paste. This dish is endlessly variable and can incorporate many other foods, like fish cakes, vegetables, seafood, or rice.
With noodles, the dish becomes labokki. Or, order a plate of fried foods, such as dumplings, with tteokbokki ladled over the top. Other popular dishes are chicken, beef, or pork kebabs, and soondae, stuffed intestines similar to blood sausage, which might be boiled or fried and served with a spicy red sauce.
Odeng is a fish cake served on a skewer, boiled in a light, clear broth made with kelp and anchovies. Customers sip on a cup of intensely savory broth — seen as a digestive aid — alongside the fish cakes. The snack is especially popular in winter, when the broth warms and nourishes.
Vongerichten always looks for bindaetteok, a mung bean pancake, traditional peasant food made from soaked mung beans and vegetables. “It’s one of my favorite go-to dishes,” she says. “It’s like crack in a pancake.” Her version, adapted from a friend’s mother, mixes kimchi into the mung bean batter.
Boiled silkworm larvae, another common street food, were a childhood snack for Vongerichten, who says she used to eat it by the cupful.
While filming “Kimchi Chronicles,” however, the food didn’t have the same allure. “My producer made me eat it, and it was like a ‘Fear Factor’ moment,” she says. “It tasted like bugs; it tasted like it smells. If you were to imagine what a bug smells like and tastes like, it’s exactly like that.”
Several neighborhoods in Seoul are hot spots for street food. In the Insadong neighborhood, a blend of historic and modern that is home to many art galleries and antique shops, and Myeongdong, a district known for high-end shopping and tourism, one can find plenty of good eating at carts and pojangmachas.
In Namdaemun, a large open-air market in Seoul, food carts compete with restaurants that line the market’s alleyways, which often spill out into the streets to entice customers with wonderful smells and tableaus. In the street, you can find specialties like budae jjigae, or, as it is literally translated, “army base stew.” The thick soup was invented during the Korean war, using US Army surplus rations, and usually includes hot dogs, Spam, and sometimes American cheese. Many Korean children were raised on this dish.
But if you’re looking for something just as authentic, but more exotic, go anywhere in the city and just listen for the unmistakable sounds of food cooking.