Korean Street Food - 포장마차

Ok so the first question someone asked me about Korea was, "Oh Korea ... Is that the place where they have all that street food?"

Well, I had to think about it, because although it's true to some extent, I guess there are loads of other countries where you can easily find street food, too. I don't know if Korea is particularly famous for its street food, more than any other country. Is it?

Heart attack-inducing delicacies for the cherry blossom tourists in Jinhae

That said, street food in Korean cities is cheap and abundant, and any busy Korean street without 포장마차 would be missing a vital feature. While there isn't always a wide variety of foods available, there are quite a few popular options that you'll often come across:

1. The most common stalls are the ones selling 떡볶이 (chewy rice cakes in spicy sauce - possibly Korea's most famous and most addictive street food), 순대 (Korean blood sausage, often served with various kinds of offal), 오댕 (Korean boiled fish cake on skewers), and 튀김 (deep-fried battered things, often prawns or vegetables).

2. Some stalls specialise in a range of dehydrated fish and squid (오징어), either fried or just as it is. There are quite a few of these places in the crowded shopping streets of Myeongdong. If you've never tasted it before, it's kind of like chewing on fishy leather ... somewhat of an aquired taste, but good for those times when you just want to nibble on something to stave off hunger.

Street food isn't confined to city centres ... Pick up some trail snacks en route to the mountain
That's not graffiti ... it says 'Fish-shaped Cakes, 5 for (^2)thousand won'.

3. The weirdest snack you'll ever find in Korea to write home about is 뻔데기, cauldron-cooked silkworm cocoons. Yep, they look like bugs, smell like bugs, and taste like bugs. You HAVE to try them once, but probably won't want to go for it a second time. Sometimes you'll see vendors selling 뻔데기 as well as paper-cupfuls of tiny little sea snails, another unusual snack.

4. Roast chestnuts - fantastic on a cold day!

5. 호두과자 - Sweet and fluffy yummy cakey balls filled with red bean paste and walnut. You can also buy them in supermarkets and bakeries. Sometimes 호두과자 are sold alongside similar-looking custard-filled cakes, or waffles, and there's a chain called Deli Manjoo that specialises in the custard ones (not sure what they're called) at stalls inside subway stations.

Chestnuts, eggy bread and skewered fish cake strips
잉어빵 (Fish-shaped hot cakes with red bean filling) in Insadong

Actually, there are quite a few different things you can buy at snack stalls in Korea. You just never know when you might find a more unusual speciality vendor! I used to live near Dangsan subway station, and every time I came out of the exit there was the tempting smell of hot corn-on-the-cob coming from one stand, a man moulding a big tray full of goo into sausage-shaped bars on sticks and deep frying them at another stand, and yet another stand on the same street corner that was supposedly famous for it's delicious 호떡 pancakes. So, there certainly is a lot more than just 떡볶이 available if you look around. Just be warned, no Korean street food is likely to be healthy for you!

Long skewers of fish cake strips in a savoury bubbling broth (one of my favourites!) outside a temple in Busan

But it's not just about the food. As well as take-away stalls on city street corners, you can also find a kind of 'tent restaurant'. This, I think, is what makes Korean street food special. These places are set up with some plastic chairs under cover of brightly coloured tarpaulin, and on dry summer nights they get really busy with people eating, drinking and socialising. The line between take-away snack stand and outdoor restaurant isn't clear, either - your options for street dining range from small snack stands with a few plastic foot stools around for customers to sit and eat, to bigger tented places with a large makeshift kitchen and a bunch of plastic tables, offering not just snacks but all kinds of proper sit-down meals - including alcohol of course. In fact, I'm kind of confused by the term '포장마차', because while it technically translates as 'take-away cart', it seems to be more often used for places you can sit down at. If anyone can enlighten me on different Korean terms for different types of street food places - please feel free to leave a comment!

Hot snacks and light lunches at a winter festival

While street food is a common thing all over the world, I think it's the atmosphere you get around 포장마차 in Korea that sets Korean street food aside. It's the unique vibe that surrounds a steamy tent crowded with late-night friends perched on red and blue plastic stools, huddling around and devouring greasy snacks with disposables chopsticks, sipping 오댕 broth from paper cups, or picking at a plastic bag full of hot 떡볶이 with wooden cocktail sticks. Whatever the weather, whatever time of day or night, you're sure to find that great atmosphere around a 포장마차 somewhere in any city in Korea.

Chestnuts, ginkgo nuts and silkworm cocoons, on a cold winter's day



See also:
My post on Korean convenience stores
Posts labelled Korean food

Comments

  1. 포장마차 means 포장된 마차. So in this case 포장 doesn't refer to take-away food, but to the tent around the 마차.

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