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Seoul street food: A Cortez journalist provides the scoop

The Myeongdong food market street is located within view of Seoul (Namsan) Tower. (Bailey Duran/Special to the Journal)
South Korean city is known for its rich, varied cuisine

In Myeongdong, a popular area nestled in the center of Seoul, South Korea, hearts beat to the food of the street.

Of course, Myeongdong is also known for its variety of shopping locations, K-pop culture, fashion, tasty cafes and beauty destinations, but the hanguk kilgori umsik (Korean street food) culture is what keeps bringing locals and tourists back night after night for dinner.

Myeongdong is very popular in Seoul for its variety of shopping options. (Bailey Duran/Special to The Journal)

This is my second time traveling to South Korea for an extended stay, and I continue to be struck by how delicious the food is. A trip to Myeongdong was a necessity during this trip to sample as many of the street foods as I could.

When I first arrived at 1 p.m. in Myeongdong, the streets were fairly quiet, as travelers and locals visited cosmetic stores and walked hand in hand. At this time of the day, there was not a street food cart in sight.

Knowing that street food vendors would show up closer to dinner time, I made myself comfortable in a nearby cafe to enjoy the delicious taste of bingsu, an amazing dessert that has quickly become my favorite here.

Bingsu could be considered a close relative to a snow cone, but this dessert comes with a twist. The bowl contains shaved ice, ice cream and a fruit of choice drizzled in sweet condensed milk. In my case, the fruit was strawberries, which is nearly always the fruit I choose.

After the bingsu disappeared from my bowl and I finished my writing for the day, I headed out in search of street food. In just a few hours, the street had transformed.

Now, instead of quiet streets with a handful of people strolling in and out of shops, the entire street was filled with street carts, music played loudly, and people speaking in many different languages lined up to taste the food as aroma rose from the carts.

The light was beginning to dim as the daylight turned toward sunset, and building and cart lights began to come on, illuminating the street and creating the perfect picture with the Seoul Tower standing proudly in the distance.

Street food in Korea is commonly enjoyed at the cart where you bought the food, which adds to the experience. As I enjoy the food, I can observe how the cart owners prepare their food and get a sense of their passion.

As I approached the first cart, I was greeted with a smile and a happy “annyeong haseyo,” or “hello,” from the owner of the cart.

Soon, I was greeted by the taste of a Korean potato corn dog. The tender hot dog came covered in a crust and rolled in crunchy pieces of potato. After drizzling the corn dog with ketchup and taking my first bite, I was greeted with the taste of flavorful bread and a mouthful of cheese, which lasted a few bites until I made it to the hot dog.

Korean Potato Corndog. (Bailey Duran/Special to The Journal)

After returning my trash to the cart owner (public trash cans are uncommon) and thanking her with the honorific thank-you of “gamsahapnida,” I headed to the next cart.

This time, I tried chicken mandu, or chicken dumplings. It was hard to patiently savor these four dumplings, because I just wanted to eat them as fast as possible, that’s how delicious they were.

Chicken dumplings. (Bailey Duran/Special to The Journal)

The outside of the dumpling was cooked to a light brown, and the inside was filled with a savory chicken and other fillings and spices.

Following the mandu, my sweet tooth began dictating which cart I stopped at, so I found myself at a cart selling the viral Tanghulu, candied fruit desserts, a kebab of candied fruit that is traditionally Chinese but has experienced explosive popularity in South Korea.

Tanghulu, or candied fruit. (Bailey Duran/Special to The Journal)

To create this dessert, various fruit slices are skewered on a stick and dipped into a pan of melted sugar and dipped directly into ice water right after the sugar to harden the mold.

My Tanghulu was made up of my go-to strawberries and green grapes, and it tasted much better than I had expected. I was worried that the hard shell of sugar over the fruit would make it difficult to chew, but instead, I was surprised to find that it created a delicious and satisfying crunch that complemented the juiciness of the fruit.

I strolled through the field of carts, trying to pick what I would taste next, and came upon bungo ppang, a fish-shaped bun as translated into English.

These adorable fish-shaped breads come with different fillings, including red bean paste and chocolate.

Unfortunately, I was unable to buy one of these, as they sell them in groups of five, and I didn’t want to waste the food.

Finally, I ended my dessert part of the tour by trying another viral dessert that exploded in popularity on social media last year. It is known as torched marshmallow ice cream.

Marshmallow ice cream being torched by a street food vendor with an Iron Man hand torch. (Bailey Duran/Special to The Journal)

This ice cream is unique because the ice cream is inside a large marshmallow. As you choose the flavor of ice cream, the cart owner torches the marshmallow in front of your eyes, using torches such as an Iron Man hand, wolf’s head or dragon’s head.

I chose Iron Man, and watched as my marshmallow ice cream turned into s’more ice cream. The outside was warm and tasted exactly like a marshmallow you’d toast by a campfire, but inside, the still-cold ice cream added a delicious contrast to the marshmallow, making me wish I had room to eat more.

Other very popular and delicious street foods are tteokbokki, which is a well-known and favorite street food in Korea, and it consists of rice cakes that are cooked in a delicious spicy sauce. The richness of the sauce complements the tenderness of the rice cake, making the meal seem almost like a comfort food that can be enjoyed on any day of the week and in any type of weather.

Similar in looks to Japan’s sushi, kimbap is a mixture of vegetables and meat including tuna, spicy fish, spam and eggs rolled into a sushi-style roll with rice and seaweed. Kimbap is another staple in Korea, and can be found not only in street food version, but in restaurants and convenience stores that are located on nearly every street corner.

Eating hotteok in Gwanghwamun. (Bailey Duran/Special to The Journal)

Hotteok, also known as a Korean pancake, is another delicious treat. My favorite hoteeok is one that includes honey, sugar and nuts inside a type of dough that is fried in front of you. There are other flavors as well that are more savory, rather than sweet.

Another street food I’ve enjoyed in many different forms is dalgogi, also known simply as chicken.

In South Korea, there are many street food varieties of chicken –barbecue chicken on a stick, fried chicken, fried chicken and cheese, chicken cooked in spicy and sweet sauces and more.

They’re all good.

When it comes to street food, Myeongdong is considered to be on the pricier side of street food, but it is affordable.

The majority of street foods I tried in Myeongdong ranged in price from ₩5,000 to ₩8,000, which is roughly $3.64 to $5.83.

Visitors to South Korea will find a plethora of foods to discover. As well as foods mentioned from my travels, other offerings are sogogi, or beef in various forms, cooked and raw squid and octopus, crab, mochi ice cream treats, grilled corn on the cob, fruit smoothies, fish cakes on a stick and so much more.

And a visit to South Korea is not out of reach.

International travel can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. I have been learning that patience is key when it comes to finding affordable plane tickets, and I have been able to find round-trip tickets ranging in price from $1,000 to $1,400, depending on the time frame I look.

My flight home is only $400.

Additionally, accommodation is affordable and easy to find. Air bnb is what I usually use, but there are also many popular hotels and hostels that are available at affordable nightly rates, with many hotels starting at $70 and $80 per night.

Many air bnb’s will also offer significant savings for those who book a stay of two weeks or longer.

Don’t allow the language barrier to deter you either. Korean people are some of the kindest people I have ever met, and many, especially in popular tourist areas, speak English. The vast majority of signs and announcements seen in public transportation, restaurants and more are written in English in addition to Korean.

While the food is a major draw to visiting South Korea, there is so much more than just food. There are gorgeous mountains to hike, beaches to visit, shopping, fashion and beauty tourism, all in Seoul, Busan, Jeju Island (the Hawaii of Korea) and many more cities.

Right now, South Korea is one of the leading nations for beauty tourism, with many people opting to purchase skin care, makeup and clothes while visiting, as well as scheduling facials, spa days, salon visits, personal color analyses and nail appointments as well.

Experiences that are expensive in the United States can be enjoyed oftentimes at an equal or higher quality, but more affordable price in Korea. A personal color analysis, for example, in the U.S. can cost $300 or more, while a personal color analysis from a professional in the field in Korea costs around $100.

South Korea has also burst onto the global stage because of their rich culture of music. Many groups are making their names known worldwide, including the band Bangtan Sonyeondan, or BTS, a Korean men’s group that is one of the most awarded musical acts in history, putting their name with the likes of Michael Jackson and The Beatles.

If you have a love of travel and experiencing new cultures, I highly suggest adding South Korea to your bucket list.