LIFE&STYLE

[Markets & Merchants] Bindaetteok and beyond at Gwangjang Market

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Mar 23, 2015 - 18:43
  • Updated : Mar 23, 2015 - 18:43
Although Dongdaemun and Namdaemun tend to dominate many lists of “must-see markets” in Seoul, small-scale markets that are equally full of history and character are scattered across the city. This is the third installment of a series introducing traditional local markets. ― Ed.

Hordes of people trying to elbow their way through crowds and ceaseless rows of assertive, dynamic vendors selling anything from pig’s feet to shaving cream to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: If you’re looking to get a slice of Seoul’s street market euphoria, or mayhem, there’s no better place than the Gwangjang Market.

As Seoul’s oldest traditional market, it is one of the city’s many cherished staples and has maintained its image as a one-stop-shop for good eats and bargain products over the past 110 years.

With more than 5,000 local-run shops, there is nothing quaint about it. From some of Seoul’s most famed street foods, to vintage clothing, silk, linens, textiles and more, the shopping opportunities are beyond imagination.

Located smack dab in the heart of Seoul in Jung-gu, one would be hard pressed to find a time when the market isn’t overflowing with discount shoppers and tourists.

Bindaetteok, or mung bean pancakes, are a must-try at Gwangjang Market. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)

For nonlocals, Gwangjang Market can indeed be intimidating at first glance. Aside from always having to keep an eye out for the occasional motorbike stacked with items zipping by, trying to pick a food stall from the numerous delicious choices can be frustrating.

During the lunch and dinner peak hours, the tearing decision of where and what to eat is easily simplified ― anywhere that you can snag an unoccupied stool. However, ask anyone about the local delicacy, and it is almost guaranteed the answer will be bindaetteok (mung bean vegetable pancake).

“We are known for our bindaetteok, people come from all over to eat here,” said one of the market’s bindaetteok vendors. “But it’s not just tourists, a lot of locals too still come here to eat our food.”

The popular Korean pancake can be eaten as a meal in itself or as a side dish. It consists of ground mung beans mixed with various vegetables such as bean spouts and peppers and then frying the bindaetteok batter in hot oil until golden brown. The pancake is hot, crisp and oddly refreshing and is certainly well worth the wait.

And although the food stalls are without a doubt the market’s biggest focal point, with most of the snack vendors hurdled together in the center of the marketplace, venturing off down the many corridors of Gwangjang is a totally different experience in itself.

Compared to the somewhat intense atmosphere of the food zone, the material shops area of the market can seem deserted as the crowds slowly start dissipating the further you stroll.

While there is certainly no shortage of luxury, high-end and big-name retail brand shops in Seoul, after more than a century, Gwangjang still retains its reputation for having some of the widest selections of vintage and secondhand clothing.

Whether it is top-quality satin and silk, customized hanboks (traditional Korean attire) or designer jeans, the market still is a place where one can push, pull and haggle prices down to its bare bones at a cost that is oftentimes a fraction of what is offered at outside retail outlets.

“People tend to shop here because the prices are more competitive than the big brand name stores,” says one of the market’s clothing store vendors. “Gwangjang Market has a lot to offer in terms of vintage clothing items. Stuff that you can’t really find in other places, just ask and you can probably get it here.”

If you go:

Gwangjang Market is located near the Cheonggyecheon in Jung-gu and can be reached via the Jongno 5-ga metro station or Euljiro 4-ga. The hours of the market vary by store, but clothing shops are generally open from 9 p.m. to 6 p.m., while most food stalls are in service until late in the evening.

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@heraldcorp.com)