Under the Covered Wagon: Seoul by Night

Seoul is an Asian city possessed of an attribute common to many of the continent’s enormous metropolises: it looks best at night. You can’t tell whether or not the air is thick with smog, and thousands of flashing lights, welcoming restaurants and flickering bars distract the eye from grimy streets.

We stayed for five nights on the fringes of the frighteningly hip Hongdae district, hang-out for impossibly fashionable fine arts students and shopping addicts. On any given night (there existed complete disregard for the notion of the working week), tiny clothing boutiques would sprawl onto the pavement, vehicles would become mired in swathes of pedestrians, and the air would buzz until the early hours of the morning.

As the sun set, the covered wagons too would warm up their deep-fryers and hospital-white tube lighting. The pojangmacha is a Korean institution, consisting of a restaurant on a wagon, on which all manner of deep-fried wonders are piled high and laid out for passing customers. Patrons duck in under a tarpaulin that covers the entire wagon and stand around the central food preparation and display area, gesturing at their tempura of choice. The cheap snacks are (after a quick re-fry in oil for good measure) served up on plastic plates covered in thin plastic bags. The bags are simply removed from the plates and disposed of after each customer has had their fill, reducing washing (and no doubt later going on to do their bit in the decimation of local marine life populations).

As drifts of steam float up beneath the stark electric lighting, customers file through, usually spending not more than five minutes under the wagon. The local dish of choice is not in fact any deep-fried vegetable but rather thick pasta-like tubes of rice cake swimming in a spicy red sauce – the whole concoction goes by the name, tteokbokki. This treat is available at every pojangmacha and seems to vastly outsell everything else on offer.

Personally, my preference still lies with the tempura vegetables but you can’t beat the pojangmacha in general for great food, warmth and a bit of that community feel in the little hours of the morning, when we ignorant ‘Westerners’ usually slink about eating kebabs and soggy chips or sitting in 24-hour McDonald’s restaurants. This uniquely Korean experience is an unmissable food event for the Asia traveler and a personal revelation from my short time in Korea. Never will fast food be the same again…

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