We arrived in Incheon at around 4am, groggy and stiff thanks to a fairly uncomfortable plane ride. Early morning hunger pangs were strong, so we stopped by CU to have a little snack after picking up our luggage. Food definitely helps clear heads after a super early morning flight.
The quickest way from Incheon to Seoul is by riding the AREX, and even then it takes 2 hours. It became a good opportunity to get some shut-eye in a cold and comfy train. At 6am, we were in Seoul Station with our luggages. And since our AirBnB will only allow us to check-in at 4pm (a full 12 hours after our arrival 😂), we deposited our stuff in the subway lockers before heading to Namdaemun Market, just one station away.
Like people rising up from bed and getting ready for the day, most shops in the outer area of Namdaemun Market were just opening up when we arrived. Some ahjummas selling hot snacks were lined up on the sidewalk, and it was my first opportunity to practice my limited Hangeul when we bought these chestnuts. 😌
It’s incredibly easy to get distracted by socks when you’re shopping in Seoul. They’re so pretty and they’re so freaking cheap! If you buy in bulk they even give you a discount, so I went kind of crazy picking designs with my brothers. After a year of use I’m happy to report the socks are still in good condition!
Despite the abundance of “hipster socks”, Namdaemun Market is more of a traditional style shopping area compared to places like Myeongdong. There are significantly more ahjumma and ahjussi storeowners here, and generally the seller and buyer population is a little on the older side.
Shops sell items ranging from food to clothing; souvenirs to houseware and cookware. There are stores selling traditional medicine and ginseng. There are underground arcades that carry lots of women’s apparel. There are complexes that hold tons and tons of shiny accessories.
Namdaemun Market is quite a big shopping area, but we didn’t actually head here with that in mind. We came here for the other thing Namdeamun Market is known for: FOOD!
The plan was to grab some breakfast and move on to another place, but we ended up spending the whole morning here– snacking, buying packaged foods to bring back home, more snacking, buying some skincare products, and then ending with an early lunch.
One of my favourite street snacks from Korea is actually their goguma 고구마, or sweet potato, bought from street carts and wrapped in newspaper. They typically come in two kinds– bam goguma (or chestnut sweet potatoes because of how they taste like chestnuts after roasting) or mul goguma (water sweet potatoes that are a dark yellow in colour).
Whichever one you pick, I think Korea have some of the best and sweetest goguma I’ve ever eaten. No wonder locals love it so much they even turn it into lattes! If you like sweet potatoes in general, I think it’s safe to say you will enjoy the latte version. 😉
With goguma in hand, we began to wander through Namdaemun’s food stalls. Korea has a strong street food culture so you can imagine how astounding the variety can be! If your mission is to try out lots of street food, my suggestion is to take it one day at a time instead of stuffing yourself with everything in sight. After all, there are many places selling street food all over the city, so you’ll get plenty of chances.
Korean street food is composed of a literal smorgasbord of food with Asian and Western influences: Noodle soups, sandwiches, stuff on sticks, and also some steamed goodies. They also have fried delights, like red bean filled round doughnuts (chapssal doughntus 찹쌀도넛) or the super chewy-addictive twisted Korean doughnuts (kkwabaegi 꽈배기). My fried guilty pleasure of choice is the yachae hotteok 야채호떡:
This is basically a fried “doughnut” filled with well-seasoned veggies and glass noodles, and OMG it is SO GOOD! I miss this so much I’m thinking of making some here at home soon. 😉 This savoury version is actually a cousin to the original hotteok which has a sweet filling.
We weren’t intending to buy any Dragon’s Beard candy, but we ended up buying two boxes thanks to this guy:
As we were walking by his stall, he called out to ask which country we were from. The moment he found out, he started saying random Filipino stuff and asked us to buy some because “Gusto kita kasi gusto ko pera mo.” (I like you because I want your money.) It was bizarre and hilarious hearing him talk with a pretty impressive accent. Apparently he has some Filipino friends who teach him this stuff!
Coming across this seller frying up some of that traditional hotteok I mentioned above, I had to stop and watch him form those perfect patties. I didn’t buy any because I prefer the savoury ones, but my brothers stopped here for a different reason. Ladies and gents, meet the Potato Dog!
Basically, these are corndogs encrusted with French fries. It’s like the ultimate junk food, and you can feel free to slather on the ketchup. (I have more on this in the Seoul Travel Video I’ll share soon.) This is just one of the many interesting fried foods on a stick you can find in the streets of Korea.
One of the coolest things about Namdaemun Market is getting to watch all these ahjummas delivering food orders to shopkeepers in the area. They carry a ton of bowls on those large metal trays and balance it on their head with one hand while the other is busy with something else. They even have time to smile and invite you to their restaurant as you pass each other by on the street.
Don’t be surprised when one of these ladies suddenly stop beside you and talk to you in Korean. They will most likely be asking if you’re hungry or if you’re looking for a place to eat. They will point you towards one of the narrow alleyways in the market where rows of restaurants stand side by side.
After spending lots of time shopping for skincare and cosmetics (the 1+1 and 20+20 roadshop deals here in Namdaemun Market are insane by the way!) we finally felt hungry again and decided to go into the nearest alley. Not sure if this is THE Galchi Jorim Alley or it’s just one of the smaller alleys, but the signs outside the restaurants here had galchi jorim (갈치조림) written all over.
Coming across this amazingly friendly ahjumma standing by the doorway of a restaurant I cannot remember the name of, my family decided to accept her invitation just because of the way she welcomed us. Sometimes a little friendliness goes a long way.
Actually, she was delighted when I spoke a little Korean to her, as most of the nice aunties are when tourists do that. So delighted was she that she gave us some super fat tteokbokki for free! I didn’t get to snap her photo because she went right back out to look for more customers, but of course I didn’t forget to say a little ‘gamsahamnida‘ to her. Memorize that guys. Thank you’s are important anywhere you go. 🙂
Customary to any Korean meal is the banchan or side dishes. These are actually free and they will lay it out on your table before your main order comes in. I love this part always. When you eat at family-owned restaurants like this one they will always ask if you want refills.
First thing that arrived: delicious Haemul Pajeon (해물파전). This is my favourite type of Korean savoury pancake because I love seafood and I love the way they make pajeon in general. You eat pajeon by dipping it into some soy sauce, and the seafood toppings can really make this a filling meal in itself.
Now we have Samgyetang (삼계탕) or Ginseng Chicken Soup. Koreans recognise the powers of ginseng so much they add it into their cooking, and in this case they stuff the ginseng into the chicken with some rice and jujube fruit. Normally one bowl of samgyetang is eaten by just one person for maximum health benefits, but we decided to share this warm hearty dish.
Up next, a traditional Bibimbap (비빔밥). You guys probably already know this right? It’s a rice dish in a stone pot, topped with assorted veggies and chili paste. You mix it all up to distribute the flavours onto the rice and eat with gusto!
And finally, Bibim naengmyeon (물냉면)! Firey yet icy, it’s a popular Korean cold noodle dish with slices of sweet pear. It’s usually topped with an egg and some sesame seeds too. This dish is sweet, tangy, and spicy in one bowl, and actually it also has a little savoury cold broth at the bottom to make it refreshing. Traditionally, the broth is frozen and is used as the “ice” to keep the noodles cold as you eat.
“Bibim” actually means “mixed”, so like with bibimbap you mix this all together until your buckwheat noodles are covered in that red sauce. This is a summer treat for most Koreans, but I constantly wish I could have this everyday. This is my favourite Korean noodle dish!
*Bibim naengmyeon is life.*
For my next trip to Seoul, I’m thinking of exploring Namdaemun Market in a more thorough way. I need to legitimately hit up the two food alleys here– the Galguksu Alley and the Galchi Jorim Alley– and have the specialties. Maybe I’ll make a street food video guide too. Pretty excited about that notion! 😀
PS. I really enjoyed the fresh strawberries we bought here at Namdaemun Market. Sweet and succulent, they’re a lot cheaper than the ones sold in Myeongdong. They’re outrageously cheaper than the ones sold here in the Philippines so best get your fill while in Korea!
Namdaemun Market 남대문시장
21 Namdaemunsijang 4-gil, Namchang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
How to get here: Take Subway Line 4 to Hoehyeon Station then exit at Gate 5
Hours: Varies by shop (Many are closed on Sundays)
Hi, your article about this market is exactly what I’ve been looking for! My flight is also arriving at 4am in ICN and i only have 8 hrs to spare before my next flight. Was a bit dissapointed because most attractions won’t be open so early, but would definitely want to venture a bit to Seoul instead of staying at the airport. Will check this market out! Thanks for the article!
I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂 8 hours feel a bit tight though, because riding the train between Incheon and Seoul takes an hour each way already. In any case, I highly recommend the Yachae Hotteok stand at the corner of IBK (the bank) in Namdaemun Market. Fills you right up!