Seoul’s glitzy luxury malls and westernized hotels, we were eager to see what makes the nation and culture unique, and are looking for places that are unmistakably Korean. We were dropped off to the Gwangjang Market, Seoul’s oldest traditional daily market. Despite the crowded floor space, Gwangjang market in Seoul features high ceilings topped with domed glass and an interior lit by naked bulbs hanging from every stall. The red aprons designate the vendors, the food stalls remain open until midnight.
I am reluctant to eat street foods after experiencing a severe case of spinal meningitis. I attributed this viral infection to contaminated street food, but no one really knows. Once in a while I get the urge to taste street foods but ever since suffering my spinal tap, I am very careful.
While walking in the covered market in Seoul, (it isn’t an open air market) we passed one food stale which looked different from most of the others. A woman manned it, she was warmly dressed in her red apron, and she had a nice smile. As we walked we passed many stalls that served very kind of pork, we cringe at some of the trotters and snouts.
Suddenly I found myself hovering over an older gentlemen sipping from a metal beaker. I tried to decipher what it was he was drinking, no luck, I still watched until the owner pointed to us, she signaled us to sit down.
My wife’s encouragement I sat, my family immediately joined and we found ourselves seated at her small table-counter. I asked for “one order” and she refused, using her fingers she raised two fingers. I didn’t feel she was being unreasonable as we were four, my wife and I looked at one another and agreed.
What she didn’t know was, I was only interested to try the food, an experiment with little intention to actually eat all of it. Our kids also seemed convinced when we sat down, so I continued my feeble attempt to communicate. In Korea English isn’t spoken widely, communication is difficult or near to impossible.
No luck on controlling any part of this experience I felt a little uncomfortable. It didn’t really matter, we decided to sit and try it, the counter was impeccable, and her vegetables looked perfect. The dish is based on rice, Bibimbap, a word literally means “mixed rice” in Korea.
She takes a medium-sized inox bowl, puts rice into it and continues to fill the bowl with all the fresh vegetables, etc. Although most of the vegetables were fresh, some were boiled, fermented, dried, or steamed. Then a dash of a brown stewed meat, and a healthy spoon of red spice called Gochujang, a Korean red chili pepper paste – a lastly a dash of Korean styled shoyu, only a dash because it is very salty.
It could have been a Mat-Gan-Jang is usually made by boiling regular soy sauce with different combinations of flavorful ingredients such as garlic, rice wine, sugar, lemon, mushroom or kelp, and then it’s saved for seasoning various dishes.
She cuts the vegetables with a scissors and takes broth (behind her) and splashes the bowl with Dongchimi, watery brine. Then she instructs us to mix it, we mix it until all the rice is soaked and the dish becomes a meal. It was very good!