Sunday, February 8, 2009

Street Food

I love Korean food because it is extreme. Food doesn't get much spicier, saltier, fresher, or more colorful. As one who has been known to drop hot sauce in black coffee, that suits my own taste. There is a lot to write about Korean food. I have a lot of things to try and hopefully I'll get around to most of it. So hopefully this will be the first in series of reports on this subject.

For now I want to focus on Korea's proud tradition of street food. Food vendors are everywhere on Korean streets, serving everthing from sweet snacks to full size meals to booze. For a little research on the topic, I took a trip to downtown Busan (Seomyeon) on Friday night. Seomyeon is a busy place, especially at night. Many of the narrow roads that wind through the heart of Seomyeon are closed to cars, so street vendors can set up shop facing the street.
A downtown street from above

Food vendors along a side street

The first thing you notice about korean street food is just how much there is. It is not like seeing a lone hotdog stand by a big intersection. The vendors line up for blocks, each selling only one or two kinds of food. Typically, the food is served on a plate, utensils are provided, and you are expected to finish the food at the stand.

Probably the most common thing is a tteockbokki, which includes rice noodles, hard boiled eggs, and flat fish noodles (odaeng), all drenched in a spicy red sauce. Like all street food here, it is a a cheap option (about 2 bucks) which will definitely fill you up. Tteockbokki stands also usually serve odaeng on a stick. Busan, being the biggest port city, is famous among Koreans for its odaeng. Interestingly, bowl-cups are provided for people to drink the water used to boil the odaeng noodles. The warm odaeng water has a strong fish flavor, but seems to help if your mouth is burning from the spice.

Odaeng sticks and Tteokbokki

Odaeng with a ladle for jus de odaeng
Another commom street food is dalkoji, which is basically chicken on a stick. This comes in both deep fried and grilled varieties. The spicy flavor of this thing is almost unbearably hot. Koreans don't f-around with spiciness, and this is the hottest of the hot.

deep friend dalkoji
Dalkoji is not the only thing that gets fried. Another kind of vendor sells everything deep fried, including rice and seaweed rolls (kimpap), peppers, squid, and sweet potatoes. This was a fun one to eat. Instead of ordering and paying in advance, you just grab a plate and fill it with whatever you want. You can eat it alone or dip in soy sauce or spicy red sauce. After you are finished, you let the vendor know how many of what you ate, and pay as you leave.

Fried stuff

Sweet Potato Fries
The scene round the deep fry stand

Another great option is roasted chestnuts. Even though I guess people eat these in America, or at least sing about them at Christmas time, I think this was the first time I tried them. They are served either in the shell or with the shell removed ("nude").

Nut Stand
Finally, something sweet. Many of the vendors serve different kinds of bread, little pastries, and crunchy rice cakes. But best of all is Hopta. Hopta is a fried bread with a sweet nutty filling inside. The best hopta is served with crushed nuts on the top, and served in a cup for some reason.


Egg bread
Ok, so I'll end with something weird. Can you see inside the second pot in the picture below?

How about a closer look??

This is bundigi, or silkworm larvae. This little bug is boiled in big, steaming, pungent pots and served in a paper cup. You can stab the little critters with a toothpick, unless you prefer to dump a lot in your mouth all at once. At least they're dead. HOWEVER, I know for a fact that live silkworm larve is sometimes served with Korean bbq (where eaters grill their meat at the table). Here, the silkworms are still alive and moving, before you plop them on the grill.
Anyway, here is my review:

By the way, I was with a korean who didn't know the english for "silk worm larvae". The cell-phone translator came up with "chrysalis, pupa". So, at the time I thought I was eating a butterfly. But no, it is actually silkworm.


  1. Quite the culinary tour, Graham! Did you actually eat everything that you pictured/described? Was this a 2 week project, or did you accomplish it in one day?
    Still having a great time in Puerto Rico!

  2. Graham, the food really does not entice me, I still like turkey and gravy! But what an experience you are having. Enjoy!

  3. everytime you post about food, i get supremely jealous.

    "Typically, the food is served on a plate, utensils are provided, and you are expected to finish the food at the stand."

    this sounds like a really good idea. do they have sinks at their booths? or do they bring all the plates/silverware home and then wash them?

  4. I didn't think about the plate/utensils issue until Ben's post. There is potential for some serious sanitary issues. But, I'm paranoid. I'm sure you're managing.
    I think of you when I eat cheese now.

  5. Yo GRAH-HAMMMM!!! I hadnt been on your blog for a while, I love it. Do lots of foreigners get sick? I just remember of all the bed ridden americans in guatemala after eating street tacos and pupusas. nowhere near silkworm larve. Well, I will be checking the blog more often. Your last post was really wonderful, thanks for being so honest about your experience. The pics are great, but that was almost better, love the insight. Im thinking about you alot!!!