The oldest and largest marketplace in the country, Namdaemun Market, is synonymous with wholesale bargains for everything and anything you might need under the sun. Mammoth in size compared to other places that may focus on one particular commodity such as cookware or medicinal herbs, and the smaller neighborhood markets, Namdaemun is still a force to be reckoned with after 600 years in operation.
Wherever you visit a traditional market in Korea, what to eat and where to buy your food products is a great part of the experience. Namdaemun is overwhelming and accosting, but considering its size there is organization within the chaos and finding what to eat is not as hard as finding the perfect bargain.
Braised hairtail fish in a sweet pungent sauce at Jungang Galchi Shikdang (photo cred: Christine Cho)
If one begins at the north gate, Namdaemun Sijang 4-gil the long vantage of the street can be viewed, with colorful displays of street food vendors, some with open-air storefronts, some with simple carts, and others squatting on the ground. It is obvious that Namdaemun merchants know what they are doing, and unlike other traditional markets, this one evokes the influence of its urban setting by having cleaner displays of fresher looking food with polite vendors that have softened their edges knowing that a happier disposition is a better approach than a hustling wail.
For a one stop eating experience, it is here that you can taste a variety of Korean classics ranging from freshly steamed domestic corn that is chewy and sweet to the heartier more hardcore Korean dish jokbal, or pigs feet, dished out with plastic gloves and eaten right from the plastic bag.
Kalguksu, hand-cut noodles, and galchi, hairtail fish, are two popular dishes where entire alleys are devoted to these specialties. They are authentic in the sense that regardless of the thousands of tourists that filter in and out of Namdaemun, what they serve is what everyone eats.
Jungang Galchi Shikdang’s never-ending lunch line (photo cred: Christine Cho)
Shortchanging tourists is a waste of time for the food vendors here, where speed and consistency are the main focus. For someone who is a seasoned visitor to marketplaces around the world, this is something that the food shops within Namdaemun can be thanked for. Nothing can be done about the overcrowded space and the raucous atmosphere, but a bit of kindness and ethics to what you are eating goes a long way.
A unique experience for those looking for a bold and fresh meal is Galchi Hairtail Alley, which has the sheer accosting smell of spices. Galchi jorim, or braised hairtail fish in a heavily red pepper spiced sauce, is a dish you would not find in many restaurants, and it would be hard to be disappointed in an alley named after it. Upon entering Galchi Alley, one would be wise to follow the rule of thumb that you eat where there is a crowd, and it would be hard to miss Jungang Galchi Shikdang that undoubtedly takes top rank as can be seen by the hordes of people waiting to get in.
Galchi Alley’s popular Jungang Galchi Shikdang (photo cred: Christine Cho)
Jungang Shikdang serves a variety of fish in the usual style of grilling or deep frying, but the galchi jorim is the dish to try with the soft and tender meat of the galchi fish simmered in a pungent red pepper gravy that looks hotter in comparison to its taste. Not too fishy nor too spicy even for the most sensitive palates, galchi jorim is flavorful and a bit sweet served with the complimentary fried galchi, steamed egg, and ready-to-go banchan covered in seal wrap.
Served in a well-seasoned stained pot with large pieces of stewed radishes and vegetables, the presentation is what it is, a meal served in an alley in a marketplace. The food and happily satisfied customers speak for itself.
Christine Cho (email@example.com
Christine Cho, a Korean-American expat in Seoul, has been eating and cooking her way around the world for 16 years as a private chef. -- Ed.Food Street:
Namdaemun Sijang 4-gil
Jongno-gu, SeoulJungang Galchi Shikdang
34-116, Namchang-dong, Jung-gu
Recommended: Galchi jorim 8,000 won