Even when winter temperatures dip well below freezing, Koreans still venture outside for the piping hot comfort of street food. South Koreans put in some of the longest work hours in the world, which doesn’t leave much time for cooking. Seoul’s food vendors are the antidote to busy schedules—they set up carts throughout the city so employees can quickly and cheaply grab a bite to eat.
Covered food markets like Gwangjang and Gyeongdong are a good way to escape the city’s blustery weather; they start offering fare by mid-morning. Since the city never sleeps, it’s also possible to find street food past midnight, particularly around wholesale shopping districts like Namdaemun and Dongdaemun or neighborhoods teeming with nightlife like Hongdae and Myeongdong. When you’re out and about, keep a lookout for steam billowing out of pojangmancha, tented stalls that lure hungry diners with an array of skewered and fried treats. Go local and wander from vendor to vendor to sample different specialties with a bottle of soju or fizzy makgeolli rice alcohol in hand to wash it all down.
1. Dakkochi: Tender grilled chicken skewers
Unfamiliar with Korean cuisine? Dakkochi is a good introduction for first-timers. Pieces of chicken and green scallions are skewered and grilled until tender. The charred morsels are brushed with an assortment of tasty marinades and barbecue sauces. As your taste buds become more daring, progress from sweeter glazes to piquant, smokier ones.
2. Tteokbokki: Stewed rice cakes in fiery red sauce
Tteokbokki, a familiar Korean staple, delivers a dose of spice and heat. The dish dates back to the country’s ancient Joseon dynasty, when it was reserved strictly for the royal court. The modern version consists of cylindrical, glutinous rice cakes that are stewed in gochujang, a fiery bubbling sauce of fermented soybean, chili paste, sugar, and garlic. The concoction is served on a plate or in a bowl and eaten with toothpicks. Keep a lookout for variations embellished with fish cake, noodles, scallions, or eggs.
3. Jeon: Savory fried pancakes
These crowd-pleasers incorporate a selection of hearty, local ingredients. Jeon are savory, fried pancakes made of flour and egg batter that are convenient to eat on the go; vendors cut them into slices and serve them bunched in a cup. The most typical kind is pajeon, made with green onions and leeks. Vegetarians should look out for yachaejeon, a version that uses julienned carrots, zucchini, and scallion. Seafood lovers should try haemul pajeon, which features shellfish, squid, or octopus. When ordering jeon in the winter, make sure to get a freshly fried one that’s still warm. Or ask the vendor to reheat a pre-made patty on the griddle.
4. Odeng: Sweet or spicy fish cakes
Skewered strips of delicate white fish cake called odeng are bathed in vats of rich, boiling broth that range from mellow to spicy. This cheap, beloved snack is considered to be a wonderful hangover remedy. Help yourself to as many skewers as you’d like; the vendor will count them up when you’re ready to pay. Stalls are equipped with stacks of small cups to hold dipping broth and condiments like soy and chili paste are also available to add an extra dose of flavor.
5. Beondegi: Insects (yes, insects)
Beondegi is a common nosh that’s also found in pubs and canned in grocery stores—but it’s not for the faint of heart. You’ll probably smell the distinct fishy, nutty aroma of the steamed silkworm pupae before you see the food cart. The grubs’ popularity rose during the Korean War when food was scarce and people were in dire need of a good supply of protein and nutrients. The chrysalises are served by the cupful with toothpicks but many foreigners consider beondegi an acquired taste. It does take some getting used to the opposing textures of the crunchy outer shell and creamy, juicy center.
6. Mandu: Dumplings of all kinds
Mandu come in many shapes and sizes with an endless array of fillings. Some are steamed in bamboo baskets, boiled in broth, or are pan-fried to a golden crisp. An order usually includes three to six pieces accompanied by a side of soy sauce. The most standard dumpling is kogi mandu, stuffed with minced pork, vegetables, and ginger. For an extra toasty treat, try the ones filled with kimchi. This sour and tangy filling is particularly popular to eat in February during Seollal, Korea’s Lunar New Year.
7. Hotteok: Cinnamon-sugar pancakes
When you’ve had your fill of savory food, move on to hotteok for dessert. These plump pancake treats are only sold during colder months. It starts as a ball of dough stuffed with a mixture of brown sugar and cinnamon (plus honey and sunflower or pumpkin seeds if you’re lucky). The dough is fried in oil and flattened into a golden disc. The finished product is a chewy, fluffy exterior filled with sweet, gooey goodness. Some vendors sell a healthier, baked version, but they don’t taste quite as gratifying. Beware: Don’t bite straight into a hotteok that’s come right off the griddle. Wait a couple minutes for the molten interior to cool to avoid burning your mouth.