Visiting Seoul’s Markets

As my friends and I were planning for our Seoul trip, it struck me that this would be my fourth time back. Having been there three times prior and having lived there, there wasn’t really much sight-seeing left for me to do. So instead of focusing our trip locations on attractions, being the foodies that we were, we decided we would plan our itinerary around what sort of food we wanted to try.

One place we all wanted to try and had never been to before was Noryangjin Fish Market. And since we already had one market on the list, we thought, why not visit the other markets in Seoul? After all, these places are where the freshest foods are at, right?

Market # 1 – Noryangjin Fish Market

Most people will tell you that if you want to see Noryangjin in its full glory, you should head there in the wee hours of the morning, as early as 3am, where the sellers would be auctioning their catches. But us being the lazy travellers that we were, plus one of our travel mates was ill, we decided to go there only for lunch.

How to get there? To get to the market, alight at Noryangjin station and come out of Exit #1. You should see a bridge in front of you. Get on the bridge, following along the path and you will come to a building where you should take the stairs down to the ground floor to get to the market.

Once you get to the market, you are basically fair game to the sellers. All of them would look keenly at you and try to coax you to buy from their store. While it was quite intimidating at first, eventually we learned to ignore their coaxing. Most of the stores offer the same types of seafood, so it’s really about choosing one that has the friendliest sellers and the best deal. We asked around and found that the price averages about 40,000krw for a fish (we opted for the flounder fish or Gwang-Eo) for one that could feed us three. Being the hungry people we were, we also got some Abalone (Jeonbuk), Sea Urchins, Octopus (Sae Nakji) and Sea Worms (Gae Bul) to go along with the food.

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The seller will then cut the fish up for you fresh at the store and plate it. Once done, you can let him know your restaurant of choice and he would take it there. For us, however, we had no specific restaurant in mind, so the seller brought us to one called Hwang Jae Restaurant.

Once inside, if you order Spicy Soup (Maeeun Tang), you will need to pay a sitting fee of 3,000krw per person. If not, this goes up to 5,000krw. The restaurant staff would also plate the rest of your seafood for you and serve you some sauces and lettuce to have your raw fish with. If you have ordered crab, you can also request for Crab Fried Rice, which of course, comes at an additional cost. Overall, with the fish and restaurant fees, we paid about 30,000krw per person, which is a pretty decent cost given the amount of seafood we had.

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Would I go back? Maybe, if I was planning to have a big seafood meal. However, if I were just craving for raw fish, a regular restaurant would suffice, saving me the pain of having to wade through the intimidating sellers and having to choose my catch. Also, the place smells extremely fishy (of course) and is very wet, so go to the market only with shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty with.

Market #2 – Majang Meat Market

Majang Meat Market works a little differently. Since there is no auctioning, the market only opens at about 11am, nearer to lunch. There is no hustle and bustle, but a lot of lorries delivering produce to the shops. It is quite an experience stepping into the market, being greeted with hanging animal bodies, chopped heads and innards soaking in basins. While I am not the extremely squeamish sort (I count The Walking Dead as one of my favourite TV series, so yes I do have a pretty hardy stomach), after about 15 minutes of walking around, my stomach began churning, and I can assure you, it wasn’t because I was hungry. Let this be a warning – Majang Meat Market is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

How to get there? To get there, go to Majang station Exit #2, walk straight till you come to a gas station. Thereafter, take a left and continue walking till you see the entrance to the market on your right. You should see a school along the way.

Sorry for those who are squeamish, but scenes like these are commonplace throughout the market!

Compared to Noryangjin, Majang had a lot less tourists. The sellers there are also less aggressive. It was however a tad confusing knowing what to choose, since everything was just…meat. We walked around for a bit and surmised that the going rate was about 40,000krw to 50,000krw for Hanwoo beef for three people. Depending on how nice the sellers were, they would offer to throw on raw beef (Yuk-Hway) or another cut of meat.

Once again, we went with the friendliest seller we saw, and purchased some meat. He didn’t offer any freebies initially, but we asked for “service” and were given quite a big amount of Yuk-Hway, which he cut and prepared on the spot. We also asked them to recommend us to a restaurant and were brought to a nice one on the second floor, near the entrance of the market.

When inside, you need to pay a sitting fee of 5,000krw per person. Remember to pass your Yuk-Hway to them to prepare else they will not do so. They will usually marinate it, add an egg and some sliced pears. For the beef, they would serve you some sauces and lettuce and you’d have to barbeque it as it is. We also ordered Bean Paste Stew (Doenjang Chiggae) to go with the meal.

Majang Meat Market was a definite eye-opener. While it didn’t really smell that bad as I expected, seeing all the animal parts did gross me out quite a bit and it is pretty unlikely that I’ll return. Or even if I do, I’d buy from one of the first few stores and then run up to a restaurant immediately! If you’ve never been to a meat market, do give Majang Meat Market a shot though. It is generally quite clean and easy to get to. And of course, there is the reward of a sumptuous barbequed meat meal at the end of it all.

Market #3 – Gwangjang Market

Gwangjang Market was Korea’s first traditional street market and is surviving up till today. It sells a great variety of items, from food to linen and crockery. Fans of Running Man might remember the CN Blue episode where the band and Running Man crew were sent to Gwangjang Market to try many of the market’s signature dishes.

How to get there? Again, getting here is straightforward (I love Seoul and its many subway stations!), take the subway to Euljiro-4-ga station, come out of Exit #4, then walk straight for about 100m, you should see the Gwangjang Market on your left.

As we had a full schedule ahead of us that day, we wanted to get to Gwangjang as early as we could. Alas, our Korean friends said that the market only opens around 9am (contrary to our expectations that a market such as this would open around 7 or 8am). When we arrived at about 9am, most of the stores were actually just doing their set-up, so I would think that if you were intending to head there in the day, 10am would be a good timing. It opens till late, so no worries if you head there at night.

Once there, we set out to try two of Gwangjang’s most popular snacks – Mayak Kimbap and Binddaetteok. The first is just a simple, small Kimbap roll, termed as Drug Kimbap due to the addictive nature of the snack, and the second is Mung Bean Pancake.

We walked around for a bit before deciding on a store with a nice lady who welcomed us warmly.  We sat down right opposite her and ordered two servings of Mayak Kimbap which worked out to a total of 16 rolls, since one serving was 8 rolls.

It was my first time trying Mayak Kimbap with the mustard sauce. I vaguely remember trying a variation of Mayak Kimbap before from an old lady who sold it on the Seoul National University campus grounds, but back then I just thought it was a normal Kimbap with lesser ingredients. 16 rolls were clearly too much for us. While it was definitely delicious, we struggled to finish the last of it. I also got a cup of Sikhye or Barley to wash all that rice down.

Once done, we walked a little more and settled at a Bindaetteok store. Given our limited stomach capacities by now, we opted for just one meat version (8,000krw) and waited as the lady fried it in front of us. The store we were at topped the normal Bindaetteok with meat, whereas I saw that other stores’ version was more of meat mashed into the mung bean mix. Either way, our Bindaetteok came out really crispy, savoury, but also very oily. It was huge too, like a pizza of sorts. Between the three of us, we managed to finish all of it, but with all that rice and flour in us, we were absolutely stuffed.

We decided to walk around the market for a bit before heading off, to y’know help with digestion. One of the stores we came across was one that sold a huge variety of Banchan (side dishes), and they were beckoning us to try the side dishes, so us being the obliging (read: greedy) girls we were, we gave in.

We tried several types, fermented squid, octopus, crab and the usual radishes. We were so impressed with the fermented squid that all of us bought a box back each at 10,000krw. The lady told us that we would be able to bring it back as it could last a day outside of the fridge and six months if refrigerated. She also put it in a plastic bag, knotted it, placed it in a plastic box and cling-wrapped it, making it extremely secure. At the end of our tasting session we even got a small bottle of yogurt drink from her (to wash down the spiciness, I presume). With our stomachs full and our Banchan in hand, we finally left the market, satisfied.

Happy trio after a whole morning of feasting!

For those keen on trying Korean street snacks, Gwangjang market is a good place to start. Once you enter the market, you will be spoilt for choice, with rows and rows of snack stalls in front of you. Though this market is popular with tourists, the sellers are noticeably less pushy. Given that I only tried two dishes this time round, I’d definitely be heading back next time, with an emptier stomach and a greater appetite!

Have you been to a market in Seoul? What was your experience like?

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