The sun is high in the sky, reaching every street in Seoul. And while one part of the huge Namdaemun market (남대문시장) spanning several streets is full of vendors selling clothes and camera equipment, another part smells like spring itself from the freshly cut flowers being sold there. The market is filled with an overwhelming amount of sounds and smells and people at all times of the day, however, there are a couple streets in the northern part of it, closer to the Seoul Plaza, that get sort of a special attention around midday.
You won’t buy any souvenirs or new shoes here. Instead, the streets are overflowing with the mouth-watering smell of possibly every Korean street food you could think of – and there’s a lot. And as the sun beats down on the tents directly from above and the lunch break starts in many of the nearby companies, businessmen and businesswomen come to the streets to sit down and have a quick bite before hurrying off into one of the side streets to smoke a cigarette and then rush back into their offices.
One of the things I loved about Seoul is how the old and the new meets there at every corner. Hundreds, even thousands years old palaces and temples live peacefully among the sometimes futuristic-looking, twenty-first-century skyscrapers and hotels. The vendors selling the most delicious street food to the businessmen and businesswomen, seemingly always dressed in perfect, mostly black-and-white attire, fit in with this image of Seoul perfectly.
Hotteok is a sort of a puffy wheat pancake with filling in the middle, either sweet or savory. The filling in mine was made of brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon with a hint of possibly apricots. The decadently sweet, almost gooey thick middle is perfectly balanced by the soft and airy outer layer that gets just the right amount of crisp on the very outside.
When I came to the stall of an elderly couple selling hotteok, I didn’t know much Korean. In fact, I knew only enough to be able to read the signs and make out that they sell this treat. (A story of my at-first-failed attempt to get this masterpiece of a food is going to follow within the next two weeks or so.) I have never had a hotteok before, and had no idea what it was, but it smelled delicious. I had to try.
After all, it seemed that this couple’s stand was among the favourite stands of the businessmen and women coming to the streets to enjoy some good food and a bit of sunshine before heading back to their offices.
When, after about 45 minutes of watching the people enjoy their hotteok together with conversations with the stall owners, I finally managed to get this masterpiece of a food, it felt like if I was being handed the holy grail of the street-food cuisine. Fresh off the hot pan, cut in half and stuffed in a small paper cup, it looked as inconspicuous as it could but smelled like heaven.
And tasted even better. The warm filling exploded in my mouth and tasted like sun itself, while the wheat pancake felt like clouds on my tongue. I know this sounds quite dramatic, but I have no better way to describe it. The man who made my hotteok saw my expression and started to laugh, saying something I couldn’t understand. I could only repeat over and over “This is delicious!” which is one of the very few things I knew how to say, and he nodded frantically while telling his wife that the “white girl” loved the hotteok. I thanked them profoundly for the great food and asked if I could take a photo of them cooking. The man gave me peace sign, we said goodbyes, and I have had dreams about their hotteok ever since.
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