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Gwangjang Market Is Seoul's Best Preserved Piece of History

I live in Seoul, the land of fermented seafood, raw calf's liver, and silkworm snacks. I've realized that the best place to sample these delicacies is at the famed relic, Gwangjang Market, a sprawling mini-city of food stalls that looks exactly the...
Photo by the author

I moved to Seoul from the UK with my girlfriend a year ago, where the disparity between the younger and older generations is bigger than I've experienced anywhere else. It's like the two worlds barely exist in the same Venn diagram. The young either congregate on the sofas of the myriad Starbucks (there literally seems to be one for every five people), sipping giant cups of coffee-flavored whipping cream and giggling over YouTube videos on the latest smart phone device, or they travel in big, chattering waves among the tourists through the ultra-modern, gleaming tower of commercialization that is the Doota mall.


Seoul was a major battleground in the Korean War between 1950 to 1953. In 1950 alone, military control of the municipality of the city changed hands four times and a huge amount of Seoul's already small productive capacity was destroyed. Today, over 60 years later, Seoul is one of the most wired cities in the world and arguably at the epicenter of modern living. But the speed of the city's evolution has meant that the older generation of Koreans—those born in the 40s, 50s, and 60s—are used to a simpler way of life. They have a certain disillusionment with the way things continue to develop here.

In the shadow of the malls, though, lies a place that not only went unharmed during the war, but has also remained un-changed ever since. Gwangjang Market is a pocket of untarnished history, a sprawling mini-city of food stalls that is pristinely as it was in the 50s. Thousands of Koreans who don't care for the modernity that blossoms around them—noticeably an older demographic—pass through every day for their fill of traditional foods like bindaeduk (giant mung bean pancakes), pig's feet, bibimbap, and all manner of potent kimchi that makes all of the stuff that your local eatery is attempting to make look like benign coleslaw.

Thanks in part, I imagine, to the street food explosion, people now crave the real taste of a place when they travel instead of settling for watered-down hotel versions of the original thing. As a result, there are more in-the-know tourists visiting the market now—it is, loathe as I am to use the term, an absolute foodie haven—but the absence of young Koreans is startling. Perhaps it's the smell—a thick, tangible wall of fermented guts and garlic—or the lack of Starbucks. Who knows. Either way, I was the youngest person there on the day I visited by about three decades, which was actually quite nice, even though my (Korean) girlfriend was called a 'bitch' by one of the stallholders for taking a picture. But hey, with my nasal passages quickly dissolving with the vapor of fermented chillies and with a belly full of larvae, I was—genuinely—a happy man.


Above, bondeggi. All photos by the author.

This is the bondeggi, which literally translates as "chrysalis" in Korean. It's a silkworm pupa and it's a snack. Old guys here really, really love them.

Above, bindaeduk

The bindaeduk looks like a huge potato rosti because it's fried. The outside is as crispy as if it were made of potato, but the mung beans make the inside a lot gooier. It was reassuringly—deliciously—bland. The lady making them said that Gwangjang Market was one of the only markets still thriving in Seoul, and, despite her initial reticence about the tourists now moving through it, is pleased that people want to see the "real" Korea.

fermented seafood

Above, a plate of calf's liver and stomach Above, 'sundae' but not like the ice cream kind

Then I stumbled upon beautiful reservoirs of various seafoods fermented in chilli. The stall owner told me that really young kids still have it packed into their lunch boxes, probably by their grandma who will eat exactly the same thing later on. Standing in the midst of the vapors coming off this stuff was like transcendental meditation.

When I found a plate of raw calf's liver and stomach, I was told that it was from the fourth of the cow's stomach, which, apparently, is good for the (human) brain when ingested. The liver was served really, really cold and was a bit like meaty Jell-O.

That's not black pudding. Well, it kind of is, but they call it sundae around here. I had flashing images of raw pig guts being swirled into chocolate ice cream dancing around my brain as I waited for my portion of this dense, spongey sausage made from pig intestine, blood, glass noodles, and barley and was all the hungrier for it. Watching the locals strongly seasoning their portions before eating, I did the same and it was fantastic. Maybe next time I'll ask for pig's blood instead of strawberry sauce on a diner sundae to spice things up a bit.


Finally, with my own intestines turning into human kimchi, there was only one thing left to do: Get some Soju—South Korea's unofficial national alcohol—and get very drunk, very quickly. It's no wonder people pass out in the streets after drinking this stuff: Each bottle costs the equivalent of under $2.

I didn't pass out on the street, though—an outcome I can only attribute to all that blood sausage laying inside me, cushioning the blow. Huge shout out to whatever pig died to prevent my otherwise certain asphalt-based slumber.