Food-Tripping on South Korean Street Food Will Make You Want to Book a Flight to SeoulMarch 15, 2020
- Serna EstrellaWords
With blocks of city space dedicated to retail stores and massive malls that remain open until the wee hours of dawn, Seoul is steadily overtaking Hong Kong as the next shopping Mecca in Asia. Myeongdong, in particular, is studded with foreign and local brands alike, with the reigning Kpop or Hallyu stars (Hello, Kim Soo Hyun) beaming down at you from their storefronts. And if you happen to be a skincare junkie with a taste for stylish clothes that you can’t get anywhere else (just like yours truly), you might even be tempted to live on instant noodles throughout your trip just so you can blow your pocket money on shopping. Fortunately, Seoul’s street food scene is at just as heavenly as its retail landscape and is easier on the wallet too. Below are just a handful of the scrumptious street eats that saved me from holing up in my hotel room with a pitiful serving of cup noodles on more than one evening:
1. Tteokbokki (KRW 3,000 per bowl, roughly PHP 120)
What it is: If there ever was an icon for Korean street food, tteokbokki would be it. This melodic word invokes images of stubby, pale rice cakes bathed in what would best be described as ladles of edible red lava. Sometimes, a few thin slices of fish cakes or onions can also be found in a bowl of these gnocchi-like babies. Overall Rating: I give it 3.5/5 barbecue sticks. The dumplings themselves are pleasantly chewy though a bit on the bland side, but that’s nothing a few slurps of the fiery red soup it’s served in won’t fix.
2. Gyeran Bbang (KRW 2,000 per piece, roughly PHP 80)
What it is: Fondly referred to as “egg bread,” these thick disks are made by pouring a generous helping of a certain kind of cake batter into molds. A raw egg is then cracked atop the batter before the whole lot is steamed to perfection. Overall Rating: Without a doubt, this snack merits 5/5 barbecue sticks. The pastry had a crunchy exterior packed with a sweet, fluffy crumb, and it’s especially delectable when you eat it fresh off the steamer. Also, the gentle cooking process also ensures that the top half of the egg yolk remains rich and creamy, while its lower half turns into an opaque, powdery yellow.
3. Odeng (KRW 1,000 per stick, roughly PHP 40)
What it is: Odeng are basically thin, fish-flavored cakes that are sold by the stick and are then cut up and served in a bowl of hot broth upon purchase. Since the hot broth is refillable at no extra charge and is also purported to be a great cure for hangovers, this especially cheap eat is quite popular during the cold winter months. Overall Rating: I found the fish cake slices to be lacking in any distinct fishy flavor, but the broth had a rich taste that became more nuanced as it lingered on my taste buds, so I give this a rating of 3/5 barbecue sticks.
4. Tteokgalbi Meatballs (KRW 3,000 per stick, roughly PHP 120)
What it is: I like to call these the Korean meatball equivalent of our local embutido. Comprised of ground pork, onions, carrots, and liberal pinches of salt and pepper, tteokgalbi meatballs are served with a condiment that resembles watered-down mayonnaise. Overall Rating: I would say this deserves around 2.8/5 barbecue sticks. It’s decent and substantial, but it’s nothing ground-breaking and you can get something much better at the same price.
5. Sausages on a Stick (KRW 3,000 per stick, roughly PHP 120)
What it is: This has two kinds of sausages: one is a typical pork sausage and the other one is a thick tteokbokki dumpling enclosed in a ground meat and vegetable layer. These sticks are brushed with your choice of ketchup, mustard, or barbecue sauce and are grilled prior to serving. Overall Rating: The meat and vegetable layer coating the tteokbokki sausage isn’t unlike the fried lumpia filling that we have here in the Philippines, and its savory seasonings made it the perfect foil to the bland stickiness of the glutinous rice dumpling inside it. The pork sausage was hearty and lean, and its juicy meat had a sweet smokiness to it. I suggest going for the barbecue sauce if you’d like to try this, but be warned that one stick can fill you up rather quickly. I’d say a solid 4/5 barbecue sticks for this one.
6. Potato Tornado Hotdog (KRW 3,000 per stick, roughly PHP 120)
What it is: This is pretty much every cardiologist’s nightmare. As though deep-fried, spiral-cut potatoes weren’t packed with enough cholesterol, this treat throws an entire hotdog into the mix. Some vendors also give you the option to roll your potato tornado hotdog in cheese or sour cream powder as it comes off the fryer. Overall Rating: I love, love potatoes, so I give this 4/5 barbecue sticks. This potato-hotdog hybrid is also coated in a thin batter before it hits the boiling oil, which lends an extra crunch to every mouthful. I also love that since these sticks are cooked to order, you always get them hot and crispy upon purchasing (and with far less grease than you would expect).
7. Tteokbokki and Galbi Chicken Skewers (KRW 3,000 per stick, roughly PHP 120)
What it is: Marinated chunks of chicken thighs are alternately skewered with tteokboki dumplings before being grilled over hot coals. Overall Rating: These skewers strike me as an entirely novel way of having galbi chicken and rice (tteokbokki dumplings are primarily made out of rice, after all), and are every bit as filling as that analogy would suggest. Flavorwise, the pungent spiciness of the marinade and the contrast between the chicken’s savory meatiness and the tteokboki’s mild chewiness bump this up to a rating of 4/5 barbecue sticks.
8. Fresh Pomegranate Juice (KRW 4,000 per pack, roughly PHP 160)
What it is: Well, this is pretty self-explanatory. (And, okay, so this might qualify more as a beverage, but you do need something to wash down everything else with, right?) Overall Rating: Pomegranate seeds are squeezed fresh upon every order, so you get a fragrant tanginess with each sip. They don’t mix in any additives or sweeteners into your drink either, so this is a healthier alternative to the bottled soft drinks in the convenience stores. However, these tetra paks are a bit pricy for the quantity that you get and are served at room temperature, hence I’d give it a score of 3/5 barbecue sticks.
9. Fruit “Candy” (KRW 3,000 per stick, roughly PHP 120)
What it is: When I asked the vendor about what he was selling, he simply pointed to the sticks lining the front of his cart and said, “candy.” With that, I thought the glistening coating on the skewered chunks was caramelized sugar, so I eagerly bought a stick. Overall Rating: Unfortunately, the shiny coating turned out to be nothing but a drizzle of honey. Don’t get me wrong, it still tasted good since you can’t go wrong with sweet, luscious Korean strawberries (don’t try them if you don’t want to deprive the Baguio strawberry industry of another customer), but given that you can purchase a whole pack of strawberries down the line for about KRW5,000 (about PHP200), they aren’t really a good buy. With that, I give this around 2/5 barbecue sticks.
10. Footlong Ice Cream Cone (KRW 2,000 per cone, roughly about PHP 80)
What it is: If you frequent Family Mart every day in the hopes of getting your money’s worth at their soft-serve ice cream station, this is what your end goal would look like. Except that it tastes wayyyyy better than Family Mart’s soft-serve. Overall Rating: They offer a variety of flavors, but we went for the green tea and vanilla cone, and it deserves a rating of 4/5 barbecue sticks. The soft-serve had a smooth, milky texture and while the vanilla half of the ice cream was rather faint, the matcha half packed an earthy, aromatic punch that was well worth the price of admission and then some.
11. Strawberry Mochi (KRW 2,500 per piece, roughly about PHP 100)
What it is: Take one of those perfect Korean strawberries and coat it with a thin layer of sweet red bean paste right before you fold it up in a translucent film of glutinous rice dough or mochi, and voila! The adorable bunny-themed plastic coverings are optional, of course. Overall Rating: While this is one of those cutesy snacks that look much too adorable to eat (come on, look at those plastic red “bunny ears”), this is a case where they should have left well enough alone. The whole combination was such a strange medley of sticky, earthy fruitiness that I’m convinced that its components would taste far better on their own. And because you really shouldn’t mess with the perfection that is Korean strawberries, I give this 2/5 barbecue sticks.
12. Fish Waffle Ice Cream (KRW 4,000 per cup, roughly about PHP 160)
What it is: This treat has four of my favorite things in one little plastic cup: thick waffles shaped like a fish, a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream, a spoonful of matcha powder, and a glorious chunk of honeycomb to take it all the way to a home run. Overall Rating: This was my absolute favorite out of all the street eats I sampled, so I give it a 10/5 rating. This is like my favorite Samanco Fish Ice Cream on steroids. The waffle was served hot off the griddle, and it was the perfect balance between dense and fluffy. The interplay of temperatures between the waffle and the ice cream also made for a splendid mouth feel, while the velvet sweetness of the latter went so well with the smoky matcha powder and the perfumed honeycomb that I ended up awkwardly maneuvering my tiny plastic spoon just so I’d get a helping that had all four of the dessert’s elements. Another bonus is that the honeycomb literally melts away on your tongue so you don’t need to spit out any waxy residue, which I’ve often had to do with cups of honeycomb-topped ice cream from some of the more established milky soft-serve brands. Yet another bonus is that the vendor selling these directs you to put your payment into a separate bin so that his gloved hands don’t come into contact with any dirty bills while he continues to dish out these precious treats. (Okay, I’ll stop raving now.)
BONUS: Fresh Cheese Chicken Galbi (KRW 23,000 for a serving that’s good for 2-3 people, about PHP 920).
So, this doesn’t strictly qualify as street food given its price tag and location (although you can find restaurants that serve this along Myeongdong’s streets, so there), but it’s worth mentioning just the same. When you order this galbi dish, your server will put a big cast iron pan on the stove in the middle of your table. He will then fill the indentation in the center of the pan with a mixture of gochujang-marinated chicken things, tteokbokki, sliced leeks, and white onions. As the aromatic, mouthwatering mixture cooks, your server adds a cup of grated mozzarella cheese to the outer ring of the pan. Once the cheese has melted into a pale yellow pool, you can start dipping the tips of your chopsticks into it to form a cheesy lollipop. This, along with spoonfuls of the flaming red galbi chicken stir-fry, is guaranteed to appease both your taste buds and your growling stomach while revitalizing you for the next round of traipsing through Seoul’s renowned shopping district.