Traditional markets see resurgence in popularity thanks to trendy and tasty treats
On a late January afternoon, some 50 people organized themselves into a line among the run-down buildings of Gwangjang Market, a 118-year-old traditional marketplace in central Seoul. With their heads tucked inward against the biting wind and hands deep inside the pockets of their bulky coats, they occasionally craned their necks toward their common target: pizza bungeoppang.
The common wintertime street pastry, shaped like a fish hence its name (bungeo is carp in Korean), is usually filled with red bean paste or choux cream, but Chonggak’s Bungeoppang cart has made modern tweaks to the snack that are drawing crowds of hundreds daily, not just to its stand but also to Gwangjang Market.
Businesses like this merging the old and the new are blowing life back into traditional markets around the city. What used to be tumbledown, forgotten enclaves are arguably some of the hottest locations in Seoul right now.
Traditional markets have largely been experiencing a downward spiral as more residents buy their groceries and daily necessities at retail stores or online. Over the years, they have been deemed unsanitary, uncomfortable and unfriendly. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service, over 100 traditional markets across the country disappeared between 2013 and 2020. Meanwhile, the number of large supermarkets has increased almost twofold, from 265 stores in 2005 to 442 in 2020.
There were 1,401 traditional markets in Korea as of 2020. Some, like Gwangjang Market and Jungang Market in central Seoul, date back to the Joseon Dynasty. Many remaining today have been open since the end of the Korean War (1950-53).
A few of these historic marketplaces are seeing newfound attention as young people’s fascination with everything retro continues. Vintage spaces with their own stories instead of cookie-cutter buildings are what is considered “hip” and “chic” today.
And amid this trend, small and big businesses alike — from street food stands with modern twists to unique bars and Starbucks — are finding the humble spaces and streets of traditional markets to be perfect homes.
Seoul Jungang Market
Ever thought of eating tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) with Merlot? How about some steamed kimchi dumplings with a glass of rosé?
Seoul Jungang Market, also known as Seoul Central Market in Jung District has learned to survive the test of time with savvy pairings that stretch across time periods. These days, it is experiencing a sort of heyday that it hasn’t seen since the ‘80s.
Until recently, the market had gone less noticed by many outside the area but it is actually one of the representative markets in Seoul, with a total of 627 stores and 1,568 business owners.
At first glance, it is a typical market, with fish flapping out of buckets, scores of banchan (side dish) containers laid out, and delicious street food trucks. But a closer look reveals unexpecting findings that one wouldn’t anticipate encountering in a traditional market, such as an izakaya-style eatery, a street taco joint, a Vietnamese pho restaurant and a wine shop.
Fishcakes are a common street food in Korea but the concept of Sanjeon is an izakaya (an informal Japanese bar that serves alcoholic drinks and snacks) that centers around the typical snack.
Sanjeon has dozens of different alcohols, including highball, sake, soju and beer. Its fishcakes, which have 34 years of history, are freshly made and fried in the store. Unlike the fishcakes commonly found elsewhere, Sanjeon doesn’t use any flour; it makes them solely out of fish meat and potato starch. A set of three fishcakes is 13,000 won ($10.40).
Further down the main alleyway of the market is a tiny street taco stand/eatery La Calle. One of the newest additions to the market, it officially opened in December last year.
Though small, the smell and sight of a giant rotating spit of pork captivate passersby. Staff were busy in the outdoor kitchen, carving off meat from the spit and crafting mouthwatering tacos.
Although a Mexican taco stand in a traditional market may sound jarring, the store has made evident efforts to successfully blend in with its surroundings. Dubbed “street tacos,” tacos at La Calle are cheap and casual with prices starting at 3,800 won. La Calle is also currently offering a special taco topped with beef tripe, an ingredient that the neighborhood is famous for. It also has an extensive list of alcohol, including margaritas, tequila shots, glasses of wine and beer.
Behind the stand, there is a small space for those who prefer to enjoy their tacos sitting.
Sanjeon and La Calle are still some of the few places inside the market that have seating. Street foods like tteokbokki, hotteok (Korean pancakes filled with melted brown sugar and nuts), fresh hoe (raw fish), crispy jeon (Korean fritters) and jokbal (braised pig feet) are sold from a truck or just over the counter, only available as takeout.
Sulsul 317 doesn’t sell any anju, a Korean term for food consumed with alcohol. Instead, the cozy bar also located on the main street of the market, allows people to bring in their own food and pair it with an extensive menu of wines and vodka. Prices of bottles range from 29,000 won to 220,000 won and there is also makgeolli (Korean traditional rice wine) and soju on offer.
Sindang Station exit No. 2.
Gwangjang Market is a tourist favorite, but it is also gathering a new crowd of stylish young locals with the opening of the bakery and cafe Onion, last August.
Located at the South 1st Gate of the market, the hole in the wall used to be a 60-year-old bullion store that had gone out of business. Only minimal remodeling has been done to the space, maintaining its run-down nature that appeals to young locals today.
Art director duo Fabrikr, which is behind Onion, said that they wanted to design the cafe so that it would seamlessly blend in with the rest of the market’s scenery.
“We used a lot of tape and plastic to decorate the interior because those are the kind of materials that are ubiquitous in traditional markets,” said Fabrikr in a press release last year.
Not only does its appearance fit in with the market but so does its menu. Its iced Americano is priced at 3,500 won, which is 1,500 won cheaper than its store in Anguk-dong in Jongno District, central Seoul. Also unlike its other stores, the Gwangjang Market branch sells just one type of pastry: a flaky piece of pie with a side of strawberry jam (4,000 won).
Right next to the bakery is Chonggak’s Bungeoppang cart, almost always with a considerable queue consisting of people seemingly in their 20s and 30s. The wait can apparently last for up to two hours on weekends, according to various blog posts online.
Chonggak’s Bungeoppang has taken a regular bungeoppang and filled it with non-traditional ingredients like mozzarella cheese, cream cheese, tomato sauce, sweet potato and nuts.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, there were easily some 50 people lined up in negative-two-degrees Celsius (about 36 degrees Fahrenheit) weather.
College student Kim Seon, 25, in the line by herself, said that she thought they were worth the wait.
“They are a cheap and delicious treat, especially in the winter. The queue doesn’t bother me as long as I can actually get my bungeoppang!”
The cart operates from noon to 5 p.m., every day except Tuesday, but it usually sells out before closing time.
After a 40-minute wait, at 2 p.m., she exited the line with an armful of all the carp bread — one pizza, one sweet potato and cream cheese, one red bean walnut and two choux creams.
Euljiro 4-ga Station, exit No. 4, Jongno 3-ga Station, exit No.12
A 20-minute car ride eastward from Gwangjang Market is Gyeongdong Market in Dongdaemun District, eastern Seoul. Opening in 1960, it is known for its myriad of medicinal herbs and spices.
Enter through the market’s west entrance numbered four and past a few meters of some funky-smelling leaves, there is a sizeable movie theater from the 1960s that has been refurbished into a gigantic Starbucks.
Gyeongdong Theater actively screened thousands of movies for some 30 years until it closed in 1994. The Seattle coffee chain opened in its place in December.
Since then, it has been drawing crowds of 1,500 to 1,700 every day, according to Starbucks officials. The store can seat 146 people. On a recent Friday afternoon, there were dozens standing against the walls, waiting for one of the seats to empty.
“I’ve lived in Seoul for the last 50 years and never did I imagine that I would be visiting Gyeongdong Market for the first time to go to a Starbucks,” said Lee Moon-young, 57, who was waiting for a seat with his daughter and wife.
The remodel preserved the basic framework of the historic Gyeongdong Theater, from its high ceilings, balconies and the cascading floors that are now filled with coffee tables. Where there used to be a screen, now stands the cafe’s main counter with servers busily creating cups of coffee.
Although a vast space, the vibe is cozy thanks to dim lighting and wooden beams and columns.
Established as a part of Starbucks’ initiative to help local communities, the Gyeongdong branch donates part of its profits to a fund that is aimed at reviving the market with “cooperative coexistence with the local community.”
“By converting an old location into a special, trendy space, we hope to reinvigorate Korea’s traditional marketplaces,” said Starbucks Korea’s CEO Son Jung-hyun in a statement last year.
Jegi-dong Station, exit No. 2
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]