There’s something about the area between Jongno and Dongdaemun that sets it apart from the rest of central Seoul. Heading west along the Cheongye stream from City Hall, it feels like you are stepping into an older, less polished part of the city. The chain stores and restaurants gradually thin out, to be replaced by smaller, more specialised outfits, and the suits and high heels morph into work clothes and more practical forms of footwear.
It’s here that you can find Gwangjang Market, Seoul’s oldest covered market. Specialising mainly in textiles, the market is a great place to go if you are after any kind of cut-price fabric or simply fancy a gawk at Korean industry at its most elemental. Traders do vigourous business amongst huge rolls of silks and linens, and narrow alleys and passages lead off into a warren of shops and restaurants.
At the market’s nucleus there is a fantastic street food section. Lines of tightly packed cooking stations spider web out from the central concourse, selling a range of Korean street food classics. Huge coils of sundae perch languidly on narrow countertops; boiled, hairless pig trotters await transformation into jokbal; and dexterous ajummas churn out piece after piece of perfectly formed mandu.
An absolute “must eat” street food here is bindaeduk. Mung beans are ground into a batter by huge rotating stone pestles, then fried up with beansprouts, green onion and garlic. The result is a thick, crispy pancake, served simply with kimchi and an onion and soy sauce dip. The pancake is gloriously garlicky, and has a great crunchy hash brown consistency to it.
Another winner here is the bibimbap. Not a dish you usually find on the street in Korea, the one at Gwangjang is made using barley as well as rice. Like some of the best street food dishes, this one is assembled rather than cooked. Measured amounts of sesame oil, gochujang and doenjang, are added with lettuce, spring onions, dried seaweed, cherry tomatoes and a great little peppery, grassy, bitter leaf whose name escapes me at the moment. The dish is all about balanced flavours and freshness, and qualifies as some of the best bibimbap I’ve had.
Gwangjang Market. Exit 12 Jongno-3-ga Station. Exit the station and walk for a few mins until you reach a road. The market will be directly across it. Once inside, walk past the first few street food stalls you see – you’ll know when you hit the good stuff!