This is the first of what I hope will be a short series on Korean street food. Anyone who has ever met a Korean or been to Korea knows that Koreans LOVE to eat, so it should come as no surprise that you can find all kinds of on-the-go edibles almost everywhere—-from deluxe red plastic tents (complete with stools) to the back of someone’s truck . . .
Tent stalls are incredibly popular, and the ones that are most centrally located are usually surrounded by large groups of Koreans—-ranging from grade school students to men in suits and ties—-huddled (at this time of year) over their steaming plastic plates piled high with artery-clogging deliciousness.
Then you have the lean-to sort of food stall, which is kind of like an extension of an existing structure. There’s sort of a mini-kitchen built against the back wall, with a counter on which the food is arranged in front; these are most commonly populated by school children.
Lastly are the pushcart food stalls. Since these are smaller than the previously-mentioned food stalls, they usually specialize in only one or two kinds of food, such as waffles and fries, or roasted chestnuts…
A word to the wise about street food—-not just in Korea, but EVERYWHERE: try to stick to food stalls where you see a lot of locals hanging out. If there are lots of people around, it means the food is being eaten and fresh food is being made. Otherwise, you may end up eating something that’s been sitting around for quite a while, which may in turn lead you to spending some quality time with the toilet…
Here in Suncheon, a good place to go for street food is the rotary near the McDonald’s in old downtown. The four or five tents that are located there are open all year round, and are generally quite crowded, especially late in the evening. I’ve eaten there a few times, and have yet to be disappointed.
And now for the first installment of Korean Street Food—-SAVORY.
Probably the most common kinds of savory street food are fried foods. Thick slices of sweet potato (goguma/고구마), squid (oh-jing-uh/오징
어), peppers (kohchoo/고추), and sweet potato noodles with vegetables wrapped in sheets of dried, seasoned seaweed (chapchae/ 잡채) are dipped in batter and then deep-fried. Each stall generally varies a bit in its assortment of foods offered since each one is owned and operated by an individual, as opposed to a chain, but the foods mentioned above are staples and can be found almost everywhere. I’m sure it’s not the healthiest of foods, but it sure is delicious—-especially when you’re on your way home late at night after having had a beer or two . . . or three. . .
Another popular street food is rice cakes in a spicy red sauce (ttuk-bokki/ 떡볶이). Ttuk-bokki is particularly popular with kids, and you can often see them walking along the sidewalk eating ttuk-bokki using a toothpick out of a small paper cup. For a few more won you can add on some cheese and/or corn, which makes the whole thing somewhat resemble a spicy cheese pizza—-in taste, if not in form . . .
Kimbap (김밥), which literally means “dried seaweed and rice,” is also very common. Basic kimbap is a mixture of rice, egg and various vegetables cut into long, narrow strips which are rolled up in a sheet of dry, seasoned seaweed, and then often sliced into bite-sized rounds and eaten with chopsticks, although if you buy kimbap at a food stall the slicing process is usually omitted, making it easier to eat as you go. (I’ll try to get a photo up shortly.) While it’s popular among food stalls, there are even eateries that specialize in making kimbap, such as Kimbap Nara and Kimbap Chungook, to name just two.
* A note for vegetarians: Even if the kimbap goes by the name of “salad” kimbap or “veggie” (yachae / 야채) kimbap, it still usually contains ham, so you should tell the waiter/waitress that you want your kimbap without meat OR ham (“Gogi-wa haem bbaejuseyo”).For some reason, Koreans don’t seem to consider ham to be meat; my husband and I are vegetarians, and we’ve encountered this strange problem numerous times when ordering kimbap…
Last—-but certainly not least—-are ramen noodles (ramyeon/ 라면). Although I haven’t seen ramen sold at any food stalls (you can find it at any supermarket, convenience store, and certain restaurants like the kimbap chains), I’m including it in this section because the sheer frequency of its presence on the street makes it a street food. There are gazillions of different flavors—-most of them insanely spicy!—-which I had the dubious pleasure of tasting my first two weeks in Korea when the gas in my apartment had yet to be connected so all I had was an electric water kettle (perfect if you’re on a college diet of ramen and instant coffee, but which I thought I’d left behind.) You’d think I’d be ramen-ed out by now, but I always have a package or two of kimchi ramen hidden deep in a cabinet for those times when I crave something salty and spicy…
Stay tuned for part two: Korean Street Food—-On A Stick!