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Autumn in Seoul 2019: Gwangjang Market & Mangwon Market

I contemplated for quite some time how I was going to break down my Seoul posts into more digestible bits. In the end, I decided to go by categories, so I’m lumping the two markets we visited during this trip in one post. It’s easier to see the differences between Gwangjang Market & Mangwon Market this way as well, though of course the good food contained inside makes them more similar than meets the eye.

Gwangjang Market

Address: 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno 4(sa)-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Anybody who’s seen the Netflix series ‘Street Food: Asia‘ knows Gwangjang Market. Heck, anybody who’s done basic research about where to eat in Seoul likely knows it too. Admittedly, our decision to come here was partly motivated by Netflix; but mostly we were curious about whether the food was legitimately as good as the show made it out to be. You can find good food pretty much everywhere in South Korea after all, so what makes Gwangjang Market special?

Before this, I had never been to Gwangjang Market. It’s got a reputation for being extra crowded, and if you knew me, you’d know that just the thought of navigating a crowded place tires me out. I dislike the hassle of it so I just avoid crowds if I can. I honestly felt like it would be okay to skip this market since, as I said, you can find good food in a lot of other places. But then the Netflix show came along and I just decided to give in. After all, if I can tolerate the Myeongdong crowd, I can deal with this too. 

I’m really glad to have visited in the end, albeit briefly, because the ambiance of Gwangjang Market is really something. It’s almost electric thanks to the combined energy of both visitors and sellers, but at the same time, it’s got a very traditional vibe. If you’re looking for a traditional Korean market experience, or looking for a place to get acquainted with a vast majority of Korean dishes, delicacies, and food items, this is a pretty great place to do it. While Gwangjang Market’s most popular feature is its food street, it’s actually also a wholesale market that sells non-food Korean products. We’re focusing on the food street today. 

We arrived to a more manageable crowd than I was expecting. It was a weekday, just a little before noon, and while there were a lot of people still, there was some breathing room. Enough that I could get a spot for taking pictures without getting jostled actually. It’s a good thing too since we came across our first Netflix-featured stall not long after entering. Now to be fair, we didn’t come here intending to follow in Netflix’s footsteps, but I did want to snap photos of the ones we came across.

The Honglim Banchan Stall was one we spotted right away. Actually, before I saw the Netflix placards displayed at the stall, I was drawn here because I love banchan. I can’t remember why we did not stop here to get anything though.

On the show, this stall was singled out for their soy-marinated crabs or ganjang gyejang. I got to try this delicacy a few years ago in Geoje, and it’s absolutely delicious! It’s literally as the name suggests– fresh raw crabs marinated in seasoned soy sauce. Because it is raw crab, I probably won’t recommend this to anyone with a sensitive stomach. If you do decide to try it out, make sure to stuff the cavity of the crab shell with hot rice to absorb all that sauce and devour! IT’S SO GOOD. Considering I regularly go on about missing soy-marinated crabs when I’m not in Seoul, it’s really ironic that I often do not end up buying any once I’m there lol.

After this short stop, we proceeded toward the main food street. You will get a good dose of its plethora of scents and sounds even before your eyes register the stalls. To be honest, I don’t think calling this a food street gives it justice. It feels much more like a “food atrium” than anything else. Columns of stalls stretch out as far as the eyes can see. Some stalls are much busier than others, and despite my aversion to crowds, anytime a stall is crowded it makes me want to try eating there too, deep inside. 

One of the things I appreciate most about Gwangjang Market is the fact that it’s indoors. (Unlike a lot of the popular food markets in Taiwan!) You won’t need to worry about the weather and can focus on figuring out what to eat first. It’s a challenge in itself without any outside forces, let me tell you. SO MUCH FOOD, SO LITTLE TIME.  

Gwangjang Market is clearly super popular– probably the most popular market among tourists, in fact. I actually spotted some locals still braving the hoard of tourists, so I guess that’s a good sign. I understand why too. Many of the sellers in Gwangjang Market have been here for years so they already have regulars. Clearly, they’ve also stayed true to what they’re good at. You won’t see any of those modern-day food adaptations here, but you will be treated to dishes that are an integral part of the Korean food identity. Perhaps it’s even fair to say that the recipes being used in some of these stalls have been passed down from one generation to another. 

The question then becomes: Where do I start eating? Perhaps the best approach when you’re faced with so many choices is to just try whatever strikes your fancy. Skip all the other stuff you’ve eaten elsewhere like tteokbokki and eomuk, and seek out foods and dishes that are new to you. (It’s just a suggestion of course.) 

We were attracted to this stall selling bindaetteok or mung bean pancakes because it was standing in such a hard-to-miss location. They even had this traditional mung bean grinder that continuously spins and makes the pancake batter. I shyly spoke Hangul to the ahjummoni and we ordered a giant golden pancake to share.

Dude, this was really yummy. The inside is nice and soft, with crunchy fresh bean sprouts and onions adding texture. The pancake itself is drenched in a tasty salty-sweet soy sauce concoction with onions and pineapple. The sauce definitely completes this!

By the way, I belatedly realized this was also featured in Netflix. 

Now for the highlight of our visit to Gwangjang Market, if you will– the Gohyang Kalguksu Stall. The owner of this stall, Ms. Cho Yoonsun, is the one featured heavily in the Netflix episode representing Seoul. Lo and behold, we got to see her in action. I don’t mean to make her sound like a spectacle, but if you watched that episode and heard her story you’d feel nothing but respect for this woman. And for me, I would consider it a great honor to try out her food. If only I knew where to place my order!

This stall was insanely busy. There were like two layers of people wrapped around it waiting for their orders. Those seated were already enjoying their mandu and kalguksu. I knew we had no chance of getting seats so we had no choice but to order takeout. Once we spotted Miss Cho’s husband we were finally able to place our order. (I kept second guessing my Hangul while I was here for some reason. That made the process much more aggravating lol.)

I would say this stall was the most crowded out of all the stalls in the market, and most of the customers were tourists. I am not surprised in the least! I am almost sure most of the people here have seen the Netflix show. Those who have not would take one look at the placard displayed in this stall and understand what the fuss was about. And then they’d fall in line too lol.

Once we placed and paid for our orders, the mandu did not take long to be served to us. We ordered plain and kimchi mandu, and both were fabulous. This is entirely handmade so I can’t help but be amazed. The thing about handmade dumplings is that sometimes it’s challenging to make the wrappers uniform and just thin enough, but these were perfect. Years of practice and repetition have turned this into a personal art-form for the ahjummas behind the stall. The wrapper gives way to generous and yummy filling as well. 

Before ending our quick visit to Gwangjang Market, we stopped for something sweet. A stall selling Millet Pancake, or susubukkumi, claiming to be owned by “The Best Millet Pancake Master In Korea” caught our attention. I have never tried susubukkumi before, and it reminds me a lot of hotteok— crisp outside and chewy inside, but shaped like a calzone. It’s got a bite to it which I assume is from the sorghum rice flour.

It’s generously filled with red bean, so if you don’t like that stuff you probably won’t enjoy this. I personally thought this traditional treat was a great way to end our visit to Gwangjang Market.

Mangwon Market

Address: 7 Mangwon-ro 8-gil, Mangwon 1(il)-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Like Gwangjang Market, Mangwon Market is also an indoor traditional market. Significantly smaller in scale and less touristy, this 40 year-old market is much easier to navigate and is not as overwhelming. It may not have the extra liveliness and background noise of Gwangjang Market, but I love the calmer mood of this place.

Mangwon Market’s offerings are cheaper as well since it’s not a tourist hotspot, but a market frequented by locals. We even managed to score Korean snacks from a grocery store here at a much lower price. Make no mistake: There are foreigners roaming about here as well. But compared to Gwangjang Market, it’s all very tame. Me likey. 

We stopped by Hongdukkgae Hand Noodles 홍두깨 손칼국수 for a sujebi and kalguksu lunch. This establishment has several branches around Seoul and is fairly popular as far as I can tell. We had to wait a bit to be seated because the restaurant was full when we arrived. The upside to waiting? We got to see the noodles being made!

Getting behind-the-scenes glimpses of restaurant kitchens always thrill me because I love cooking. I’m sure some of you can relate. I watched as the noodles for the kalguksu were stretched out and the noodle chunks for the sujebi were torn and thrown straight into the water/broth for boiling! (You can watch my food video for a better look!)

Sadly the show had to be cut short as we were seated after maybe 5 minutes of waiting. The restaurant is so small it’s not the sort you should linger too long in if there are people waiting outside. Most of the other diners left immediately after finishing their food.

The food here is super cheap for the serving you get! The sujebi was just 4,000 won while the kalguksu was 3,500 won. That’s a steal if I ever did see one! These types of noodles are pretty no-frills as it’s literally just noodles and broth. But then because it’s so basic it’s easy to judge how good and bad it is. You can immediately tell if the noodles are too tough or too soft, or if the broth is too salty or bland. 

For me, these noodles were great. The broth had a really nice flavor, and the noodles were chewy but soft at the same time. Because you get a lot of noodles in your bowl, it’s incredibly filling. The bowls may look small in the photos but believe me, the noodles aren’t just floating on top. You will literally be eating down to the bottom of the bowl. The kimchi on the side provides a good break from the monotony of the noodle soup. (Not that my noodle-loving heart complained while eating this.)

After this meal, we wandered around for a little bit and ended up buying some steamed sticky rice desserts with makgeolli in them. To be honest, we tried very little food while we were here, so I would be more than happy to come back for another round of eating. 

To see what else we were up to in Seoul in October 2019, check out this video:

Other posts in the SEOUL AUTUMN 2019 SERIES:


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