One day in November, I woke up and decided that it was officially winter. After replacing my argyle-printed tights with fleece stockings and tucking a pair of gloves into my coat pockets, I promptly picked up a fever and burrowed into bed. With no Campbell’s chicken noodle soup to keep me company, I turned to the next best thing that I could find—a large jar of yuja-cha (yuzu, or citron tea—try the Hansalim (한살림) brand, which uses only organic ingredients).
Getting the syrupy yuzu-to-hot-water ratio was the difficult part; I like my yuja-cha a little watery, so I eventually settled on a requisite two-and-a-half spoonfuls of yuzu (generous helpings preferred) per glass of water. Every steaming thermos in my hands became a temporary hot pack, the scent of honeyed yuzu serving as a kind of crude aromatherapy. And the quicker I could drink the tea, the quicker I could get to the simultaneously sweet and bitter pieces of yuzu peel gathered at the bottom of my mug—best, of course, consumed by the spoonful.
If my grandmother were still alive today, there is no doubt that I would have asked her to make me some sujebi (traditional noodle soup) to eat with my citron tea. Of all Korean dishes, many of which are strangely elaborate, sujebi certainly falls on the simple end. The soup resembles kal-guksu (literally, knife-cut noodles) in more ways than one, especially with the wheat flour of the chunky noodles and the sliced potatoes thickening the seafood-flavored broth, but there is something more down-to-earth and motherly (or, rather, grandmotherly) about sujebi. Perhaps it has something to do with its homely appearance—the noodles are folded and torn into smaller pieces by hand, resulting in a bowl of irregularly-shaped, but unexpectedly delicious, chunks of dough. The clear broth is mild, but if you are looking for a kick, add some kimchi for a spicier version of the traditional dish.
Citron tea (and distant thoughts of my grandmother’s noodle soups) was what got me through my first bout of sickness abroad, but the whole time I was curled up in bed, I was really only craving the things that the doctor would have advised against the most—the cheap eats of Seoul. Take a stroll through any well-known college campus or large outdoor market area in the city and you’ll instantaneously find a wider variety of street food than the hot dog stands and Mister Softee ice cream trucks that dot the streets of Manhattan (although there is no replacement for chicken and rice on 59th—yet).
As tempted as I was to send out a distress call requesting an order of tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) with some extra odeng guk-mul (fish cake broth), I knew it wouldn’t be the same sweating over rice cakes in the comfort and warmth of home. Real street food in Seoul is best devoured outdoors on a winter evening, after a whole day of wandering the city in the biting cold. It is almost a rite of passage to wait in line for the longest five to ten minutes of your life, face and hands chapped from the searing wind, just so that you can wolf down a small snack in a minute’s time, tops. Standing still in the cold, huddled under a street cart’s flimsy awning, only reminds you that your jacket is not quite thick enough for this weather, and you’ll end up chewing so quickly that the heat, and sometimes the spice, of your well-earned street food burns the entirety of your mouth and throat—but you know it’s the perfect stuff to keep you warm for the rest of your trek home.
A personally gratifying favorite of mine is ho-tteok, a sweet flatcake filled with a cinnamon-sugar syrup (often times mixed with various nuts or seeds). My mother once explained to me that the name of this staple winter snack originally comes from the sound you make, with perfectly rounded lips, to blow cool air over a piece of piping hot bread. Vendors differ on what exactly they use to make their dough (sometimes rice flour, sometimes corn flour), but the end result is a chewy kind of pancake that is perfect for nibbling in the middle of winter. Nibble too slowly, and you’ll inevitably end up dripping sticky syrup all over your scarf; nibble too quickly, and the delectable warmth in your hands will disappear in no time.
Nibble too slowly, and you’ll inevitably end up dripping sticky syrup all over your scarf; nibble too quickly, and the delectable warmth in your hands will disappear in no time.
Almost as if to prove that winter is here to stay, I’m still sniffling and finishing up the last of my citrus-flavored tea, all the while attempting to replicate the taste of my grandmother’s sujebi. But the minute I can set aside the glass jar of yuja-cha for recycling, I’m making a beeline for the good stuff on the street. Here are two of my favorite ho-tteok hotspots for this upcoming winter:
Sam-bo-dang Ho-tteok (삼보당 호떡): Although there are countless number of ho-tteok carts and stands in the Insa-dong area, you’ll usually be able to spot this joint given the long line of people standing outside. Here, they deep-fry the ho-tteok to a crisp, resulting in a snack that’s a little crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. You’ll find that this particular filling is extra nutty—both in flavor and texture. 1,000 won per ho-tteok.
From Jongno 3-ga station on line 5, take exit 5 and walk straight; turn right on to Insa-dong’s main street and you’ll find this stand on your right at the first intersection. [Map]
Namdaemun Ya-chae Ho-tteok (남대문 야채호떡): You’ll find two kinds of ho-tteok at this stand, a slightly cheaper version of the Insa-dong deep-fried ho-tteok (700 won each) and a slightly unconventional take on ho-tteok, ya-chae (vegetable) hotteok. Each vegetable ho-tteok is stuffed with a generous portion of jap-chae (glass) noodles—a surprisingly delicious combination. The advantage over regular ho-tteok? No scalding syrup to burn your tongue. 1,000 won per vegetable ho-tteok.
From Hoehyeon station on line 4, take exit 6 and walk straight; turn right into Namedaemun Market and look for Gate 2 (you want the cart with the orange sign, just left of the IBK bank branch). Make sure you visit before sundown, when the owners start cleaning up for the night! [Map]