Tongin Market reinvents itself with old-fashioned street food

Tongin Market in downtown Seoul was originally established in 1941 during Japan's colonial rule of Korea, after food vendors began springing up in the then-growing neighbourhood of Tongin-dong.

Over the decades as the city grew into a metropolis, the market has seen many ups and downs ― mostly downs.

However in recent years, it is tearing through the image of being a back alley market and reinventing itself as one of the few old-style markets that is still thriving in the city.

"A long time ago this place was more known as a poor man's market and was mainly used only by locals who lived in the neighbourhood," said Park Yong-doo, a vendor at the popular Moon Coach grilled octopus franchise.

A college professor-turned-vendor, Park said it was his business interest in Moon Coach that led him to become a member of the Tongin Market family, grilling up the franchise's signature chewy, fire-grilled octopus snacks.

"In the past the market was very small, and not very clean. However, over the years it has been rebuilt and we can see it continuing to expand," he added.

Although still relatively small in scale, Tongin Market presently features nearly 80 establishments ranging from sit-in restaurants to quick-bite food stalls and shops selling various materials and household knick-knacks.

As of late, thanks to the market's relatively new "Dosirak Cafe" (Lunchbox Cafe), it has not only put itself back on the map in the eyes of locals, but is also attracting international visitors.

Around two years ago, the market decided to implement a unique tray and token system offering visitors a more practical and efficient way to taste a variety of snacks and meals.

Those who wish to dine at Dosirak Cafe can purchase tokens designed to look like traditional "yeopjeon" brass coins from the Joseon era.

Customers can stroll around with a plastic lunch tray and exchange their coins for various food items at any of the participating vendor stations.

"Ever since the launch of Dosirak Cafe, people are definitely seeing a change in the market," said Park. "Tongin Market has been put back on peoples' radar and there is an increase in the number of tourists."

Depending on the item, a food serving typically costs anywhere from one to four coins (one coin equals 500 won).

"I have been working here for the past 30 years and I have seen the market go through countless changes," said Lee Jung-hoon, a vendor at the market's most famed food joint ― Grandmother Jung's Hyoja-dong Old-Fashioned Tteokbokki.

"But what now makes this market more special than others aside from its history is definitely our use of the coins at Dosirak Cafe," he added.

Without a doubt, one of the market's most iconic meals is its signature oil-fried tteokbokki. Traditional tteokbokki, or spicy rice cakes, is typically served in a thick stew-like broth of Korean red pepper paste. However, at Tongin, a simple, crunchy fried version of the popular dish can be found.

Over the decades, Grandmother Jung's tteokbokki shop has made a name for itself as one of the best places to enjoy this market staple; so much so that the front of the shop is graced with a giant banner showing off photos of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who tried out this local delight during his visit to Korea last year.

The sheer flaming redness of the rice cakes may leave some intimidated, but fear not, the heat is much more tolerable than it looks. However, for those not too keen on flaming their taste buds, nonspicy plain fried rice cakes are also available.

If you go

Tongin Market is located west of Gyeongbokgung Palace, a 10-minute walk from Gyeongbokgung Station on Seoul Subway Line No. 3. The market is open every day. However, it should be noted that a number of stores close on Sundays.