I love visiting markets. Each time I take a trip down to the market reminds me of my younger days. I would follow my mom to traditional markets every Sunday morning. I did mention in my Noryangjin Fish Market post how visiting a local market can gain you insights into one society, its people and their ways of life.
What people sell and what their daily staple consists of, what people eat in different seasons, and how some of the vendors would suggest to their customer’s dinner menu for the day as they purchase their groceries away are truly inspiring. These trivial events never fail to entertain the 7-year-old me back then.
The markets in Korea certainly have their unique character and personality. Especially for this particular one, the Tong-in Market (통인시장) — a 73 years old market established during the Japanese occupation period at Seocheon (서촌), aka the Gyeongbok Palace area. The old-school fonts on the meat stall, the typical red neon lights… are all super nostalgic.
The market was first established as a marketplace for Japanese residents in 1941. The situation changed after the Korean war, stalls were taken up by Korean vendors. However, business wasn’t great until their Community Center introduced the Dosirak (도시락) “Cafe”, and the business began to revive. To date, Tong-in Market has over 70 stores, with most of them in the lunchbox/food business.
One of the most interesting activities here is to buy your own Dosirak using traditional coins. Basically, you’ll go to the market’s customer service centre, and look for the signage “Dosirak Cafe”. Let the person in charge know that you’re here for the Dosirak, and that you’d like to exchange modern Korean cash for the traditional yeopjeon (coins).
Once you exchange your coins, you’ll be given an empty tray and you can just walk down the alley to load up your tray with the food available in the stores! Somehow the business concept reminds me of economical rice at home. Or shall we call it an interactive chap cai png? Anyway, sounds fun, isn’t it?
So this is how we start our Dosirak picking journey: After going through the entrance to the market, walk straight down until you see the community centre (above picture) on your right. It is located in the middle of the market. Go straight up to the 2nd floor, where you’ll find people busy eating their dosirak. Locate the cashier room, where you can purchase the coins and the empty tray, then come back down to the street to start your food hunting adventure!
Some little rules and regulations before we start:
1) With KRW 5000 You’ll be given 10 coins. Food price varies from one to two coins downstairs at the market. Check the price with the vendors.
2) Not all of the vendors on the street are in the dosirak project. Look out for stores with the signage “通 도시락 cafe” only. However, you can use cash to purchase any food you like, even if the vendors are not included in the project. Likewise, if you run out of token coins, you can still purchase the food with cash.
3) After purchasing the food, you can go back to the community centre to enjoy your meal. Do note that the vendors downstairs do not sell white rice, but you can purchase white rice from the community centre. If you really need to have rice, remember to save up to 2 coins, or pay KRW 1000 per serving.
You can choose from a variety of food available from the usual banchan (Korean traditional side dishes), salads, and different kinds of kimchi, to the rare dishes like tteok galbi (grilled beef patty stuffed with rice cakes), or bulgogi. If you’re wondering what to order, here’s the list of popular dosirak dishes people are ordering:
– Ddeok galbi (Grilled beef patty stuffed with rice cakes)
– Mandoo (Steamed meat dumplings)
– Gaeran-mari (Tamago/ rolled omelette)
– Japchae (Stirfry glass noodle)
-bulgogi (grill marinated beef)
– Kimchi Dwaeji galbi jjim (Stirfry Kimchi pork)
– Gi-reum deokbokki (oil fry rice cake)
How a typical dosirak vendor stall looks like. Isn’t it very similar to our economical rice? Talking about that I start to miss those lunch hours at Maxwell market. Anyway, the food here is prepared fresh daily and menus vary depending on what’s available in the season.
This is the signboard I was talking about that you should lookout. Stores with this signage accept your coins.
One extremely popular dish among Koreans is this stir fry rice cake (Gireum deokbokki 기름 떡볶이). The rice cake is stir-fried with some chilli powder and brown sugar mixture, one of the more special rice cake dishes in Korea I would say, as you don’t get it elsewhere except in Tong-in Market.
Our lunch box of the day after spending the 10 coins! For your information, my friend and I did not set aside 2 coins for the rice and soup as I was cutting down carbs intake and she just don’t feel like having rice. But let me mind you, KRW 5000 worth of side dishes are VERY filling as well. I could hardly move after stuffing everything down my throat.
As for the stir-fry rice cakes, it is more like a been-there-done-that kind of dish since it is known to be a speciality in Tong-in Market. The texture of the rice cake is chewier and since it is a stir fry dish, it is more to the greasy side. Best eaten hot. Other than that, not much else to brag about the rice cakes.
My Verdict: From a traveller’s point of view, it is a unique experience to dine at Dosirak cafe as you get to purchase your meal directly at a traditional market. I have been there twice and so far everything I picked tastes nice. Since the dishes are prepared fresh daily, it is a healthier alternative if you are looking for a lighter diet. To be honest, to get a balanced diet in KRW 5000 while not having the quantity compromised, I think it is an excellent find, especially around the Gyeongbok Palace area. If you are travelling on a budget or would like a yummy palette loaded with homemade goodies, this is a wise choice.
Tong-in Market Dosirak Cafe
Seoul Jongro-gu Tongin-dong 10-3
Korean version of the address: 서울 종로구 통인동 10-3번지
Monday-Saturday, 11am-5pm. Coins exchange until 430pm.
How to Get There:
1. Take the subway to Gyeongbok Palace Station (Line 3) and exit through Exit No.2
2. Walk straight for about 10 minutes. You’ll need to cross one major street to reach the destination.
3. After crossing that street, continue to walk straight and take note of a covered entrance to Tong-in Market on your left-hand side.
4. Get into the market and continue to walk down the only alley of the market and you’ll find the community centre somewhere in the middle of the alley.