Sunday, 27 April 2014

Topokki in the Heart of Seoul

On my first night in Seoul, South Korea's capital, I didn't want to hang around my hotel.

So after glancing at a promotional booklet about the city's cuisine, I headed to a famous food alley in the Sindang-dong neighbourhood, known as Topokki Town.

It's a street devoted to topokki, a popular Korean snack involving soft rice cakes, fish cakes and red chilli sauce. In Topokki Town, however, the dish has been elevated to the status of a main meal, which people sit indoors to eat.

I had a T-money card with credit on it for the local public transport, so there was nothing stopping me. The first thing I encountered, though, was this:

In the Jongno-3 Metro station, the closest to my hotel, Tourism Australia was running a promotion for travel to Australia.

Past the kangaroo, however, I zipped down to Cheonggu station, three stops along the purple line. From here it was an easy walk to the entrance of Topokki Town:

It was surprisingly quiet - one has this mental image of Asian food streets always buzzing - but it was 7pm on a Wednesday. Maybe it was too early, either in the evening or in the week.

In any case, the street was lined by topokki eateries of various sizes:

I was unsure how to choose a place to eat. I instinctively decided against patronising the restaurants that tried to tempt me in by using English (force of habit), but I didn't fancy anywhere that was empty.

Finally I saw this place - not huge, and with a number of locals dining in. I picked my way over the gas pipes running along the floor to a table.

You'd think this teapot would contain tea, but nope, in Korea it's nearly always full of cold water:

Now to order. This was tricky. I had no Korean, didn't really know much about the dish and how it was prepared, and I could see it would be cooked at the table.

The owner came over and indicated that the minimum order was for two people. As that would only cost 11,000 won ($11), I said that was fine. As a result, this vast pan of food was placed on the stove at my table:

The white tubular things were tteok, a kind of soft rolled rice cake. The flat triangular segments were fish cakes. There were also two types of noodles, loads of veggies, two boiled eggs and a decent amount of thick chilli sauce.

Now to cook it, and again I was clueless. The waitress who delivered the pan turned the flame to high, then left me to it. As it started to bubble I stirred it vaguely with the ladle I'd been given, mostly to feel like I was doing something, then lost my nerve and turned the flame low.

In due course the owner came by and turned it back to high. He pointed to a couple of things I could eat now - the tubes of tteok included - but apparently the rest needed more cooking.

In due course the whole pan rendered down nicely, the ingredients merging together into a tasty, spicy dish with plenty of liquid. I ate as much as I could, but that was only a bit over half. It was a great introduction to a classic Korean street food.

Leaving Topokki Town, I had a quick look along the extension of the street past the gate:

As you can see, there were a number of prominent signs for places selling coffee. That's a relatively new development in South Korea, but it's a potent one - in this traditionally tea-drinking city you'll now find cafes on nearly every street.

It seemed apt that one of Seoul's oldest foods should be accompanied by its new favourite beverage.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.