Seoul’s Gwangjang Market

by Liz on January 25, 2013

in Food,Travel

It was a chilly day when I visited Gwangjang Sijang in Seoul, but the subzero temperatures didn’t seem to bother some of Korea’s hardiest street stall entrepreneurs.

Most of them, nearly all women, were too preoccupied with pancakes on the griddle, or cauldrons filled with porridge.

Maybe it was because it was a Saturday, but the food stalls from north to south were packed! Which, to me at least, came as a surprise, because I’m quite familiar with this market.

My maternal grandmother fled North Korea in the late 1940s with two little girls (one of them, my mother). After the Korean War she began selling fabrics at one of the above-level floors of Gwangjang. She worked there, I believe, for five decades, and we would visit her. She would awake at 4AM, so this was the only way we’d actually see her during the day.

On our way home, we’d sometimes stop at one of the many stalls serving Sundae (Korean blood sausage), kimbap or tteokbokki.

But up until recently, there were never too many people at this market largely dominated by humble migrants from Hamgyeong and Pyongan provinces.

All that’s changed now, and it seems TV media, both foreign and domestic, may have had something to do with Gwangjang’s status as the new, hip place to be.

It’s interesting to note food in Korea, even the most ordinary everyday stuff, is fetishized.

Koreans used to eat to live. Nowadays, it’s safe to say, they live to eat.

The Korean market has always been a traditional feminine domain. Women seem to be doing all the money-making, and the day I went certainly proved this point.

But with a new woman president at the helm in South Korea, perhaps the political power-making will be in the hands of women as well.

So here’s to a new year, new pancakes on the griddle, and more importantly, to our appetite.

Gwangjang Market is located at 6-1 Yeji-dong, near Jongno-5(o)-ga station, Line 1, exit 8.


Mogok Rice Noodles with Stewed Chicken, topped with Shan Preserved Mustard Leaves, or 'Burmese Kimchi.'

I just had the most amazing bowl of noodles in a long, long time. A bowl of noodles that’s actually timely and relevant, given that the country it hails from is now ‘unclenching its iron fist.’ Yes, I’m talking about Burma, that storied country of nascent political and economic reforms, and home to a legendary democratic activist whose house arrest has paved the way for today.

This food experience comes at the heels of a boat tour I took this past winter of Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Along the way I enjoyed a bowl of Khmer noodles, topped with cilantro and other indescribable deliciousness that has had me in sort of a daze.

Noodle vendor at Tonle Sap. Best noodles ever!

Certainly New York is a long way from Tonle Sap, and Burma too, for that matter. But one of the great perks of living in this megapolis is the sheer human diversity and the accessibility of wonderful cultures, especially culinary cultures, from Asia and otherwise.

Every year the Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation holds an annual Burmese Food Fair in Queens, the details of which I mined via the prolific Dave Cook of Eating in Translation. The weather has been lovely, so I ventured out to try Burmese food, not because I wanted to duplicate my Tonle Sap food experience, but I wanted to try something new, yet familiar.

It was my first time trying Burmese food, and under the friendly gaze of Burmese vendors, volunteers from the local community raising funds for humanitarian aid, I managed to make some very fine choices.

The very colorful Mogok Rice Noodles with Stewed Chicken (pictured way above) hit the spot. This was excellent, excellent stuff. The rice noodles were subtly chewy, and served as the neutral backdrop to the protein-rich flavors of the stewed chicken, the refreshing bites of cilantro, crushed nuts, and my favorite, the Shan Preserved Mustard Leaves, which the smiling lady who ladled my soup explained as “Burmese kimchi.” And like kimchi it was memorably spicy.

Upper Burmese Style Stewed Pork at Moegyo Burmese Food Fair New York

Next was the Upper Burmese Style Stewed Pork. I was starting to get the feeling the Burmese like their meat stewed, cooked until so soft the meat starts falling off the bone. We’re talking tender flesh braised in a barbecue sauce that I can best describe as possessing the flavors of the Thai sauce Nam Prik Pao. Sweet yet savory. And slightly addictive.

I know New York has more upscale food affairs than those to be found at the civic food fairs that enrich its local communities. But at 5 dollars per dish (at most!), and with a far-ranging array of Burmese, Vietnamese and Thai desserts to satisfy everyone, I have to say – I really look forward to next year’s food fair, and perhaps even having a go at the karaoke stage, that is if I learn some Burmese songs first. (And if do go on stage, I’m thinking some jungle wine wouldn’t hurt either.)


(From L to R, top to bottom) ART HK 12, Seoul Diagonal Tower by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, The Chan-Zuckerbergs, China's War for Talent, Vintage Viet Cong Posters

@The Diplomat reports the Obama Administration has appointed its first Ambassador to Burma. Derek Mitchell, an inside-the-Beltway native, will be America’s ambassador to Burma, the first in 22 years. Or as President Obama put it poetically: “As an iron fist has unclenched in Burma, we have extended our hand.”

@TIME Magazine reports there’s a war for tech and engineering talent taking hold in China. Expect massages, foosball tables and other perks if they really want you.

@Can’t say I didn’t see this one coming. The Korea Times reports a survey of 3,600 people in nine countries shows K-pop Inc. will probably not see lasting success. Too much hypersexual dancing perhaps?

@Art sold well for an impressive swath of galleries represented at the Hong Kong Art Fair (ART HK 12). Even Arario Gallery reported selling an “undisclosed number of smaller pieces, ranging from USD 10,000-50,000.”

@Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan tied the knot at the end of a very eventful week: Chan earned her medical degree, Zuckerberg’s Facebook IPO was the largest in tech history, although it did disappoint a bit by closing 9.5 percent down from its opening price. It’s also something of a fairy tale ending for Mr. Zuckerberg.

@Looking to vacation in Southeast Asia? Know your fruits before you go.

@And if you are Southeast Asia-bound, you might want to rethink fish pedicures.

@On the other hand, if you’re headed to Beijing and looking for some bizarre eats, be sure to get your sneak preview here. (via Fili Nation)

@Are the Norks getting soft? I’m talking about their agreement to release 3 Chinese fishermen, who were detained for 12 days and at one point were held for ransom.

@And for South Korea, Dezeen has done a very nice job of rounding up the future of Seoul’s positively 22nd century skyline.


@Child of the Sixties Forever has a collection of Viet Cong posters from that decade. Which makes me wonder. Will we be looking back at today’s North Korean propaganda with equal bemusement?

{ 1 comment }

Chinatown’s culinary democracy

by Liz on October 11, 2011

in Food

    Fresh rambutans on Canal Street

    UPDATE: The Itinerary I mention below is now available on! Check it our here.

    Recently in New York there’s been an ongoing movement to nosh on ethnic foods, edible delights that shouldn’t just taste good but also be as authentic as possible. Almost every other week we hear of an insider’s tour of Jackson Heights, or a Flushing Food Tour that will leave all stomachs happily full and sated. The best part of eating ethnic, and particularly Chinese, is that it is very kind on the wallet, which given the economic mood of today, is probably the biggest draw of a dumpling that’s Made In Flushing or a red bean bun at a Chinatown bakery.

    Financial considerations aside, I would gladly eat at some of my favorite Chinatown restaurants any day. It’s just too good to pass up, which is why I’m also working on an itinerary that will help visitors eat like a local and really enjoy the Asian quarters of New York.

    The foods eaten in the Chinatowns here represent something of a culinary democracy. Every color, shape and size is completely represented, and no ingredient that’s natural or good is spared.

    So I’ve been pounding the pavement looking for wonderful food and gathering information. What I’ve learned along the way about Asian food, and Chinese cuisine in particular, has been a revelation. The foods eaten in the Chinatowns here represent something of a culinary democracy. Every color, shape and size is completely represented, and no ingredient that’s natural or good is spared. And while it’s something of a truism that actual, political democracy is a faraway reality in China and will remain a bone of contention, I can’t help but turn my attention to a different kind of democracy, one that’s been around in Asian culture for thousands of years, and revolves around food, life’s most important necessity. The best part of Chinese culinary democracy is not just all-out representation of textures and colors, either. It is for me, as it is for others, food that’s economically accessible to almost anyone with a dollar to spare.

    And that to me sounds like true democracy: simple, beautiful, delicious and available to all.

    Bánh cuốn at Thái Son (89 Baxter Street)

    Dumplings with chili oil at White Bear (135-02 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing)

    Fried chicken drumsticks at LIRR Food Stall, Flushing

    Almond cookie ice cream at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard St)

    Ten Ren Tea (135-18 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing)


When I first started this blog, I must have been tremendously naive, or at least under the impression that Asian-y events in New York were manageable, at least from a writer’s perspective. Of course, now I know better.

New York is positively Asiafied. It’s actually a challenge to curate great places and people, and reduce a month’s worth of events to one page. It’s also bewildering that some really terrific stuff gets totally ignored by mainstream media outlets! As usual, I’ve taken an avalanche of information for October and reduced it to reasonable a number, all in the vague hope it’s of some service to my readers.


{ 1 comment }

Chuseok time is japchae time

September 10, 2011

I’ve been Korean for as long as I can remember, and for as long as I can remember I have never been a big fan of japchae, a lightly stir-fried dish of glass noodles embellished with various vegetables and proteins. Which, to me, is ironic, because I love stir-fries and noodles, and japchae has both […]

Read the full article →

Asiafied NY: Issue 3

September 1, 2011

Well New York, this September marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A month of rememberance as we officially settle into fall, a season that’s also our fair city’s best, hurricanes, earthquakes, and financial fallouts not withstanding. But rain or shine, there will always be things to do, foods to try, and art to remember. Always.

Read the full article →

When bananas go ripe…

August 10, 2011

When bananas go ripe, you make banana bread. This recipe was inspired by my travels to Thailand, and the flavors of the banana desserts I tried in Bangkok and Phuket. Of course, banana bread tastes nothing like Thai fried bananas, or bananas in coconut milk. But once you fall for the fragrant fusion of both, […]

Read the full article →

It’s chilly, spicy, and North Korean

August 6, 2011

Some of you may remember ‘My Favorite Things,’ a song from the hit movie musical Sound of Music. Trying to coax the children back to bed, Maria von Trapp sings a laundry list of her favorite things, the small but precious glimpses of life that make her happy. Slowly the children are no longer afraid […]

Read the full article →

Asiafied NY: Issue 2

August 2, 2011

What would you do without this handy guide? As before download it, spam it around. And let me know if you have any (friendly) suggestions.♥ UPDATE: Baohaus I closed on October 2, 2011, but you’ll still get Huang’s classic grub at his new location at 238 E 14th St New York, NY 10003.

Read the full article →