Dotonbori, in the the centre of Osaka, is more or less considered ground zero for the city’s nightlife. Running parallel to the main canal, it’s a crowded, noisy, neon jungle that often draws comparisons to Bladerunner. The main street hums with the clamour of pachinko parlours and girl bars, and back streets seem to lead off into worlds and lives that most of us are barely able to imagine. It’s right here in the middle of this vice and ruin, that some of the best street food in the city can be found.
We’ve just spent our first day in Osaka. Ostensibly we’re here to get our Korean visas sorted out, but the real reason is to eat!
Osaka is Japan’s second largest city, and boasts a stellar food reputation. While Tokyo may have the honour of being the city with the most Michelin stars in the world, tougher, grittier Osaka is known as the “kitchen of Japan.” The city is famous for it’s Takoyaki and Okonimiyaki, and after a day here, it’s easy to see how the Osakan saying “Kuiadore” (eat yourself to ruin) might conceivably be played out.
Korean street junk fusion is on the up. I feel like I’ve been reading for months about the Kogi Taco trucks in LA, and a few weeks ago, Zen Kimchi posted an interesting piece about the bulgoki hotdogs, chopped galbi and fries and beef and kimchi sandwiches that are becoming popular in the states.
As most of these things seem to be happening in America though, thus far I haven’t really felt able to relate. On Friday night however, en route to the pub, I got the opportunity to sample what may well be the next item in this flavour mashing craze; the Tteokburger.
Selling from a street stall near Gangnam station, the Rice Cake or ‘Tteok’ burger is pretty much what it sounds like. Beef patties are roughly formed around three or four thick, cylindrical ricecakes. They are then cooked on a hotplate, and sandwiched into a sesame seed bun with some shredded cabbage and lots of ketchup and mustard.
As street burgers go this was pretty good. The patty was thick and meaty (even with the addition of the rice cakes the burger probably had more beef than any of the nearby fast food chains,) and the tteok managed to lend a bit of substance to the burger without being intrusively chewy or bland. What I really loved about this burger however was the sauce overload. A couple of good squirts of ketchup and that watery Korean mustard (it looks like cheese in the photo) and the burger turned into the sort of cheap, sweet, messy affair that’s made for right between the third and fourth beers of a Friday night.
Now that’s what I’m tteoking about!
One of the best parts of Korean street food has to be the bread. During the winter months especially, vendors abound selling warm, freshly baked bread products such as hoddeok, gyran-ppang and the distinctive fish-shaped Bungeo-ppang.
Another popular bread snack is Gukwha-ppang. This small, flower-shaped bread is very similar to Bungeo-ppang, and involves sweet bean paste contained inside a light, pancake like batter. Like Bungeo-ppang, it requires a heavy, dimpled pan to cook, and you can often see Gukwha-ppang operations mounted on the back of small flatbead vans.
This one is located immediately outside the entrance to the Seoul Arts Centre. Despite having just dined on doncass at a nearby orange restaurant, the long line that was forming and the sight of silky, elastic dough being rolled out freshly for each order proved too much to resist!
We ordered a hoddeok and six Gukwha-ppang and promptly retired to a nearby bench with our spoils. Warm and fresh, the Gukwha-ppang was both light and rich. The batter tasted exactly like pancakes (western ones, not Korean ones) and the sweet beanpaste centre provided a bit of focus to the snack.
I have to confess however that it was the Hoddeok I was really impressed with. I love the contrast between the bready, slight crispy shell and the warm, sticky cinnamon mixture within.
I’m getting hunger ppangs just thinking about it!
Back when I was a carefree type I came across some excellent Halva in Beijing. The Halva was nutty, sticky and a bit of a jaw breaker, but nevertheless it became one of the highlights of my Asian street food odyssey.
I thought that was it for halva-esque snacks for a while, but last weekend whilst on a reconnaisance mission to the Andy Warhol Exhibition at the Seoul Art Museum, for Sarah’s new art blog, I discovered this look-alike.
Like the Beijing Halva, this street food snack was sweet and packed full of nuts. Unlike our Chinese friend however, the centre was made up of a white nougat-like substance that was soft and chewy in some places, and hard and crunchy in others.
I have to admit that I didn’t think much of this stuff to begin with. The centre seemed a little boring, and compared to jam-packed halva it wasn’t too exciting nut-wise. After taking it home and letting it sit for a while however, I began to see it in a different light. The centre, far from being bland, was fantastically sweet and the nut casing packed a serious protein punch.
More than this, it has inspired me to act. There is a van outside our apartment block that sells bags of loose nuts for peanuts – add a little honey, and I sense a recipe coming on!
These baked sweet potatoes are a popular Korean street food and are ubiquitous throughout Seoul.
The potatoes are baked all day long in a small, hot stove with a chimney attached (pic on its way) and sell for about 1000 won a piece.
The prolonged exposure to heat concentrates the sugar in the flesh and caramelises the skin, making the potato tooth-achingly sweet (even by sweet potato standards.)
Oh, and they also make great pocket hand-warmers for the cold walk home!
While much has been written about the bad boy of Korean street food, the french fry coated hot dog, up until today I had yet to try one for myself. This was partly because they are essentially a Seoul beast, and partly because most of my Korean sausage experiences tend to end up the wrong type of “interesting.”
Today, however, whilst on a shopping expedition to Dongdaemun Market, I finally got a chance to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
As the name suggests, the french fry coated hot dog involves taking a regular hot dog frankfurter, rolling it in batter, then drastically jacking up the fat content by covering it in french fries and deep frying the sucker until golden.
The result, I have to admit, was pretty good. The crinkle cut french fries were crispy and well cooked, while the sausage was tasty and of a reasonable quality. The only part I didn’t like was the batter adhesive used to hold the french fries in place – after the crispiness of the fries the batter seemed soggy and bland by comparison.
Not bad for my first Korean Street Food of the decade, and definitely the right type of “interesting!”