One of my favorite things about Seoul are the traditional markets dotted all over the city in every neighborhood.  They are a place of adventure and excitement of what awaits to be discovered. No less true when one day I randomly ran into the Gwangjang Market that I have heard of but have never been.

Gwang-jang market.

It was after one of my cooking classes on a Saturday evening, having an errand to run, I headed towards Dongdaemun area keeping an eye for interesting eats.  Close to Jongno-5ga, I found a sign for a market selling clothes, blankets and random things, a common market scene in this area.  But as I walked further in, I saw glowing lights ahead, and to the delight of my tummy, the sight of food stuffs started to appear.

The mysterious alleyway.

I peered down a small mysterious alleyway to my left.  I saw a buzzing crowd and a row of eateries that I thought must be serving something yummy.  My eyes quickly scanned the Korean words looking for clues as to what they were serving.  As I walked further in, I saw old ajimmas (ladies) in front of the restaurants ushering customers in to small 12-seat joints and fresh, shiny red meat and liver displayed in the front.  My first thought was that they must be serving some BBQ, but oddly, I thought, no smells wafting my way.  Then, I finally clued in.  Ah, the signs that said “hwyae”, which is Korean sashimi, is actually referring to raw beef and raw liver!  My realization was confirmed as I turned my head and saw a ajjoshi (man) dipping his raw beef in a sesame oil seasoning enjoyed along side his soju.   I know some Koreans have an obsession with raw foods, including raw beef sashimi, but eating slimy, RAW cow’s liver… that is really extreme food!  I thought you DIE if you eat this stuff.

This is cow's liver sliced up, eaten sashimi style.

Fortunately, I found an even more buzzing food scene as I walked further down the market hall (that seemed endless).  Suddenly, the crowd was bigger.  There were bigger food stalls and lots of people sitting around drinking and eating everywhere.  There was ajimmas frying nokdu (mung bean) pancakes, even grinding the bean in front of you with an old stone grinder.  For a good few minutes, I just took in the whole scene – the little food mountains everywhere, like japche, jokbal, and kimbap, the older gentlemen enjoying soju with their friends, the steamy pots and pans of yummy-looking food, and the buzzing noise of people just going about their own business enjoying dinner.

As I walked from one food stall to another, the ajimmas behind at each stall gestured for me to take a seat and asked what I was looking for.  Finally, after doing a little circle around, I took a seat at one of the benches and asked the ajimma for tteokbokki, a classic street food of rice cake cylinders smothered in spicy chili sauce, and soondae, a Korean blood sausage made of pig’s blood, glass noodles and glutinous rice.

Ajimma slicing my soondae order.

Soondae on the left, and the tteokbokki with the sweet and spicy red sauce.

I took my first bite at the soondae, seeing that the tteokbokki looked and smelled a little spicy.  I don’t know if it was just because I was hungry or if it was the atmosphere of the market, but it was the best tasting soondae I ever tasted.

On to the tteokbokki.  Honestly, after one bite, I was in tears.  Nothing emotional here, my eyes were just sensitive to the spiciness and the steam from the fish broth that was a few inches from my face. Next thing I know, the wells of tears in my eyes had turn into full streams of tears running down my face, and I was starting to feel slightly awkward (it’s not like I can run to the bathroom!).  The guy next to me passed around the toilet paper roll that was used as napkin, and soon enough, everything was under control.  The tteokbokki was spicy indeed, but SOOOO tasty that I finished it all.  I mean, the sauce was killer, in a good way.  It looked like it had been reducing on the burner for hours, coating the fat rice cake cylinders just perfectly, which itself had the perfect soft, chewy texture.

After the satisfying meal, I headed out right away escaping through one of the alleys.  The rest of the exploring will have to wait for the next visit, now that I know how to find this market.