When you travel to Korea, whether it be to metropolitan cities like Seoul and Incheon or some of the quieter destinations, one thing that you will always see, no matter where you go, are the clusters of old, new and ever-busy street food stalls.
Usually run by an ajusshi (아저씨) or ajumma (아줌마), or older men and women, these popular stalls have become an integral part of Korea’s infamous food culture – and we consider it a bit of a ‘travel sin’ if you visit Korea without eating at a food stall at least once!
Evolution of Korean Street Food
The tradition of Korean street food stalls dates back over six hundred years, to the time of the Joseon Dynasty, where vendors would sell their food at the neighbourhood markets. These ancient vendors formed for themselves a base of economic activity, which helped those in the lower classes considerably .
Fast forward to 1953, after the Korean War, street vendors once again made a large impact on low-income inhabitants by feeding the influx of starving refugees – whose survival relied heavily on these food stalls.
Since then, street food stalls have been the heart and soul of Korea’s food culture, and despite certain opposition, food stalls still continue to flourish – preserving important fragments of Korean history.
There are many types of street food sold in Korean markets and stalls ranging from traditional snacks like tteokbokki or eomuk to popular Western goodies such as ice-cream and grilled cheese, but there wasn’t always such a wide variety of food available.
Before the 1960‘s, most of the food sold at street stalls were jinppang (찐빵), steamed bread filled with red-bean paste, and hoppang (호빵), steamed buns that could be filled with vegetables or meats. These traditional snacks could easily be called ‘the ancestors of Korean street food’, since they were passed down to Korea from Japan during the early 1900’s. They became so popular that by 1971, a Korean food company produced large amounts of Jinppang and Hoppang for household use.
Another ‘ancestor’ of Korean street food is eomuk (어묵), or o-deng (오뎅). Traditionally a Japanese dish, these addictive skewered fish cakes made their way to Korea in 1876 and began in the port of Busan – some say the fish cakes found in Busan are the best in the country!
In the 70‘s, since wheat, flour, sugar and oil, which are the main ingredients for street food, became more widely available, snacks such as tteokbokki (떡볶이), spicy rice cakes, gimbap (김밥), and seaweed rice rolls began appearing at vendor stalls.
The 1990‘s saw the introduction of Belgian waffles, churros, kebabs, hotdogs and other international foods to Korean street stalls and, as the years have gone by, the vendor’s menus have gotten more and more diverse – nowadays you can even find hybrid snacks such as gamja-hotdogs, which are literally sausages wrapped in deep-fried potato!
It’s common to see street stalls selling foreign foods in the areas with a dense tourist population, such as Itaewon, Dongdaemun, Myeong-dong, Jongno and the ever-popular university streets – vendors in these busy areas will constantly update their menus according to the latest food trends, which usually include famous Japanese dishes like takoyaki and sashimi.
But, for us, no food can beat the traditional Korean dishes! And some of our favourite, unmentioned, street food meals include; matang (마탕 – potatoes in a sweet glazed sauce), pajeon (파전 – savoury pancakes) and mandu (만두 – Korean dumplings). But street food menus aren’t limited to only savoury dishes, they also serve popular desserts which include; hotteok (호떡 – deep fried Korean pancakes), bingsu (빙수 – shaved ice) and the infamous bungeoppang (붕어빵 – fried ‘carp bread’ with red-bean filling).
Rise of the 포장마차 ‘Pojangmacha’ Culture
Over the years, Korean street food stalls have grown into three different forms of food stalls – traditional ones that you can see on almost every street, food trucks equipped with inbuilt kitchens and pojangmacha (포장마차).
Pojangmacha, or ‘covered carts’, are small tented areas that have become a common and popular place for locals and tourists to have a meal late at night. Usually located on the street, food sold here can either be quick snacks or proper meals, such as dakbal (닭발), chicken feet covered in a spicy sauce, and dakkochi (닭꼬치), or skewered chicken.
The number of pojangmacha in Seoul has recently declined, due to people claiming the establishments are unsanitary and illegal, since many vendors operate without permits.
But despite this opposition (most of which come from other street vendors), many pojangmacha owners have been left alone, permit or not, to serve what they wish, where they wish – allowing Korea’s long street food tradition to live on into the modern world!
Feature Image Source: ©Photo by Ian Valerio on Unsplash, 28.08.2018, unsplash.com