There are a myriad of interesting culinary experiences to be had in East Asia, from scorpions to live octopus to dog soup, but regardless of the fare my most memorable and enjoyable meals have all been taken in outdoor markets or from street vendors. Street food allows you a much more intimate connection with a country’s food and people than does eating at an overly sterile tourist trap or chain restaurant. Some may be initially put off eating in a restaurant fashioned from a tarpaulin that’s filled with mismatched dilapidated second hand plastic tables and chairs but there’s a big payoff if one can push through and get out of their comfort zone, if not maybe a Sandal’s all inclusive resort may be more fitting than a trip to East Asia.
If you’re looking for authentic street food in Korea you need look no further than a Pojangmacha, or food tent. A literal translation may be a covered wagon, as some other sources have claimed, but to the average Korean it means a tent serving food and alcohol. The structures can vary from mobile carts that set up for the night to more permanent tents with large seating areas with gas and electricity piped in. Wandering around most cities you can find a multitude of small alleyways and side streets lined with the more permanent fixtures. The owners supposedly pay a fee to the local mafia for rights to operate their stall.
Going from tent to tent you can find a variety of different foods but each tent usually specializes in one or two special dishes. My favorite tent, for example, specializes in pan fried whole fish and spicy chicken, a tent down the street is famous for chicken feet, another for writhing octopus tentacles, and a neighboring tent squid and sometimes whale. Regardless of the their specialty all tents serve the de facto national drink of Korea, soju which is a ridiculously cheap and relatively potent beverage distilled from rice, barley, corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. I’ve seen it on sale in the grocery store for as low as ninety cents per bottle and one bottle is really all you need. Some tents also have makoli, a milky fermented rice wine, as well as beer. When Koreans go out for a night on the town it usually includes four or five places or “rounds”. Each round consists of several rounds of drinks and anju, or food to eat while drinking, such as fried chicken, sausages, pajon, a giant seafood pancake or some other variety of fried food. Koreans don’t usually drink without anju and are amazed when they find many foreigners drink without anju. A typical night could consist of dinner at a restaurant, second round at a beer house, third round at a noreabong, or kareoke, and forth round at a food tent, so the later one ducks into a tent the more interesting the clientele become.
My favorite pojangmacha is run by a lovely woman in her fifties that the foreign patrons lovingly refer to a mom and the Koreans call aunty. Like many shopkeepers in Korea she keeps her tent open as long as there are customers which means on weekends she is often working until well after sunrise as older Korean men are famous for drinking all night and into the next day but I’ve never seen her without a smile on her face. If there is a lull in business she can even be coaxed into drinking a few shots of soju with regular customers. I’ve met interesting characters from all walks of life in Mom’s Tent from salary men blowing off stream to ancient looking country farmers who drove into town on their tractors. Pojangmacha have not only provided me with unique and wonderful gastronomic experiences but have also allowed me a connection with Korean culture on an intimate level that I could have never experienced in a chain restaurant.
Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, will be published in June 2013.