I will be taking a bunch of students to Seoul for five weeks next February/March (we’ll get there after five weeks in Bombay). In preparation for this trip, I recently spent a week in Seoul, visiting sites, checking out possible accommodations and group activities; and, of course, also eating.
Though the missus was born in Seoul and lived there till the age of nine (at which point she moved to Los Angeles with her family), we have not been to Seoul as a family and nor had I ever been there before myself. I was a little intimidated by the thought of navigating the city by myself for a week but quite predictably ended up having a blast in the periods of time before, between and after my appointments. I walked an average of 7 miles a day—a lot of it to markets where I ate. One of these markets was Namdaemun Market—I ate lunch there on three consecutive days. Here is a look at my second lunch, eaten on a Friday in the market’s famous “Kalguksu Alley”.
Namdaemun Market is apparently Korea’s oldest and largest market. Several alleys lined with shops of every kind run through it and it’s quite busy even on weekdays—though on weekends the crowds intensify even more. All kinds of goods are available there; there are also grocery stores, butchers, fishmongers etc. And, of course there’s a fair bit of food. Much of this is sold by vendors who line one wide pedestrian alley that runs between Namdaemun-ro and Toegye-ro. Among these vendors are some who are famous for their hotteok (a type of sweet, stuffed pancake). The market is also famous for two specialized alleys, as they’re known in Seoul: one whose branches are lined with establishments that sell galchi jorim or braised hairtail/beltfish (though all kinds of other fish and non-fish dishes are also available); and a smaller covered one, with plastic sheeting entrances at both ends, that specializes in kalguksu or hand-cut noodles. For reasons that will become clearer as I post more of my Seoul reports, I was not up to tackling galchi jorim by myself. And so it was in search of kalguksu alley that I went.
And let me tell you, it was not easy to find. You can’t map it on the local map app I was using (Naver Map) and the directions on Google Maps are not easy to parse either as Google Maps doesn’t offer walking directions in Seoul. Still, if you trust to Google Maps in general you can make your way to it as long as you know what it is you are looking at when you get there. Because if you don’t, you may well pass it, as I had on my first visit to the market, without realizing it is there. But fear not, I will give you an easy way to find it, as long as you approach the market from the direction I did.
You must begin where Namdaemun-ro begins: at the crossing in front of the imposing Sungnyemun Gate (you can’t miss it). With Sungnyemun Gate at your back, start walking down Namdaemun-ro on the right side of the street. Soon you’ll see a series of stores on your right that sell cameras and camera paraphernalia. Go a tiny bit further and you’ll come upon a hotteok vendor with a large number of people queuing opposite them. They are at the mouth of the aforementioned wide pedestrian alley lined with food vendors. Turn right here into the market and go straight up the alley, till you’re almost out of the market and at Toegye-ro. About 50 feet from the end look on the right for plastic sheeting covering an entrance between two clothing stores. That’s the main entrance to Kalguksu Alley.
Push the sheeting aside, go in and you will be confronted by a large mass of hungry and hangry humanity squeezed between two rows of vendors that go on to the other end of the alley. On each side, the vendors are right next to each other, standing and cooking behind counters, while their customers perch on small stools in front of the counters. Behind the seated customers will be people waiting (im)patiently for them to get up so they can sit down as well. Whether seats are available or not, the vendors will be inviting you to sit or wait at their counter. (I recorded a video of all of this and you can view it as a Reel on Instagram.)
Where should you sit? It is entirely possible that some of these vendors are more renowned than others—though going by the displays they sport, each one of them seems to have been featured on some Korean television show or the other. My advice to you is to do what I did: sit down at the first place where a seat (or enough seats if you’re not alone) opens up. From the point of view of what you eat, it will not matter. This because, as far as I could make out, all the places serve the same menu, at the same prices. This menu, no matter where you sit, will be quite concise. Kalguksu heads the bill, followed by naengmyun, boribap (barley rice with mixed vegetables), and a couple of other soups. Almost everyone will be eating kalguksu and there’s no need for you to be an asshole. You’re in Kalguksu Alley and so you should eat kalguksu.
Not being an asshole—though opinions vary—I sat down and asked for kalguksu. This was made entirely to order, with the dough rolled out and cut, and the noodles cooked after I placed my order (you can see her in action here in another Reel). All this was done by the lead cook (presumably the proprietor; there were two other women helping her) while she supervised the action, surveyed where customers were in their meals, tried to convert others from observers to customers, and took payment from those who were done.
At the counter itself there are large containers of kimchi and seasoned greens and various vegetable components of the boribap. A healthy portion of kimchi and greens is set down in front of you. If you finish your portion you can serve yourself some more. A little while later a little bowl of spicy bibim naengmyun shows up as well. You can start on it while you wait for the main event or wait. I waited. And the wait was worth it. The noodles were great and the broth was wonderful. There’s not much more to say. I ate it all and then ate all of the bibim naengmyun. I then paid and fucked off—these are not places to linger (though the crowd had begun to ease a bit by then).
For a look at it all—if those two Reels weren’t enough—click on a picture below to launch a larger slideshow. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and to see what’s coming next.
I have no memory of how much I paid but my pictures say it would have been 8000 won or just about $6. Which is kind of crazy. And you should take cash with you—I didn’t ask but I doubt credit cards are accepted in Kalguksu Alley (if you know otherwise, do write in below).
As I said, this was not my first or last meal at Namdaemun Market. I will probably put the other two together in a separate post; and I may have a third post that’s just a look at the market proper. All of that will show up in the weeks ahead. Tomorrow, I’ll make more progress on my getting my Delhi reports done.
It looks like sensory overload at the market is a definite risk. But the noodles and bibim naengmyun look like they’re worth the risk.