If you have ever travelled with me, you know that nothing will stop me from visiting the local market. If I have to wake up at the crack of dawn to see the market when everyone else is asleep, I will. If I have to make you sit awkwardly on a red plastic stool and watch me eat a bowl of noodles on the street, I will. And if you go to Seoul with me, I will make sure we stop at one of my favourite rediscoveries for Korean food – Gwangjang Market. I had avoided the market for a long time because I had the impression it had become a tourist trap, but a friend brought me back recently and good lord, the place is filled with rows and rows of locals slurping down the simplest and most delicious Korean treats. I try not to think about what I’ve been missing all of these years in case I start tearing up.
If you go to Gwangjang market, don’t plan to eat before (or after) because the market is overflowing with steaming heaps of grilled meats and blood sausages, stacks of mungbean pancakes, rice cakes bubbling in chilli sauce, and mountains of marinated vegetables waiting to be mixed with spicy noodles. You really want to be able to try a little bit of everything and then roll your way home for a nap.
Gwangjang market is one of the oldest traditional markets in Korea and perhaps most famous for its mungbean pancakes or bindaetteok. There are so many vendors in the market selling these pancakes, but there is one that is the most famous and where you will see a queue of bindaetteok acolytes spilling out the door. I’m not sure why this one vendor has a queue and the others do not. I have vowed to do a taste testing the next time I go to confirm whether these pancakes truly are tastier than the rest. I just need to be hungry enough to follow through with this which is basically impossible when there are so many other dishes to sample...
Regardless, the hyped mungbean pancakes are worth the short wait in the quickly-moving queue. There are two varieties that you can order – the classic mungbean pancake with chopped kimchi and mungbean sprouts and a pancake replete with minced pork. I prefer the classic pancake as the pork pancake is more pork than pancake, but anything can be balanced out with a sip of chilled makgeolli, or Korean rice wine. Light in alcohol content, this milky rice wine is traditionally paired with mungbean or scallion pancakes and drunk out of tin or terracotta bowls. I have an inherited love of makgeolli because of family history, but I’ll save that story for my next post. Suffice it to say that if you’re going to have a Korean pancake as a snack—a very substantial snack—you should be having makgeolli along side it to happily tip you over the edge.
The fact that Gwangjang market is across the street from another excellent market, Chungbu market, is yet another reason to make the trip. Chungbu market focuses on produce and dried food stalls and overflows with dried anchovies and nuts. There are baskets filled with fresh ginseng lined up like superfood soldiers. Vendors stand behind bales of dried sweet potato noodles and elderly women mete out bags of rice and dried beans. If I lived in Seoul, I would come here every week to shop, but for now I’ll have to make do with filling my suitcase with whatever I can carry back from this market and schlep home to Hong Kong like a mungbean mule.
Gwangjang Market, 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
While I try to unlock the secret of the Gwangjang market mungbean pancakes, here’s my own recipe, a version of which was previously published in Hong Kong’s Foodie magazine. Feel free to add young mungbean sprouts for added texture and if you’re lucky enough to have them available, use fresh split mung beans instead of dried and just reduce the liquid by about half.
Kimchi Mungbean Pancakes (Bindaettok)
300g dried (or fresh) split mung beans (peeled, not the ones with green skin)
150g kimchi, drained and minced, with 80ml kimchi liquid reserved
2 scallions, minced
1 large egg
Optional: 100g minced pork or shrimp, raw
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
salt and black pepper to taste
sunflower oil (or other neutral oil) for frying
Soak the mung beans overnight in cold water (or at least for six hours). Drain and set aside.
In a blender or food processor, process the beans with 80ml water, 80ml kimchi liquid and egg until it’s a grainy, porridge-like texture. You don’t want to have a batter that’s too smooth or too chunky. Mix the batter with the kimchi and pork or shrimp if being used. Stir in the garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil, and season with salt and black pepper to taste.
Heat a generous amount of oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Spread three tablespoons of batter in rounds in the pan. Use a well-oiled circular egg mold if you want to make perfectly uniform pancakes like they do in Gwangjang market. Cook on each side (approximately five minutes on each side) until crispy and browned.
Serve immediately with Korean dipping sauce.
Korean dipping sauce
50ml soy sauce
50ml rice wine vinegar
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp garlic, grated
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1 tsp Korean chili pepper flakes (gochugaru)
Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.