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Culture & Tourism

  • Food that fills the heart: Namdaemun Meokja Street

  • Culture & Tourism SMG 4330
    • The most “Korean” outdoor market: a must-see attraction for foreign tourists
    • A “market that sells everything,” including clothing, bedding, kitchen utensils, interior decorations, cookies and snacks, souvenirs, and many more.
    • The small shops that line the narrow alleys of the market sell a variety of working-class dishes, providing foreign tourists with a wealth of Korean food to enjoy.

    It was a pig’s head that introduced Namdaemun Market to the world.

    In 1998, when Metallica was in Seoul for its Korea tour, lead vocalist James Hetfield was fascinated by a pig’s head he came across in the market and took a picture of himself kissing it. The picture became a sensation in Western countries, where pig’s head is not usually thought of as something to eat.
    As a result, this particular pig’s head played a decisive role in promoting Namdaemun Market to other countries.

    At the time, there were numerous shops throughout the narrow walkways of the market with pig’s heads on display—no body, only the head. Because many of them have never witnessed anything like it before back in their home countries, foreign tourists often experience an equal measure of surprise and fascination at the sight of them.

    The pig’s head, which becomes yellowish in color after being boiled, greets passersby with a very life-like facial expression. Even foreigners who were surprised by the sight approach it again for a better look.

    The famous image of the pig’s head provided outsiders with a glimpse into Korean culinary culture in the country’s traditional outdoor markets. After the initial shock from encountering a different culture subsides, many foreign tourists begin to find it quite endearing. Based on this, Namdaemun Market has played the role of a cultural “bridge” of sorts for many years now.

    Pig’s head

    Namdaemun Market—a traditional Korean-style outdoor market—has become a major destination for foreign tourists who want to experience the “real” Korea. Originally one of Korea’s most prominent outdoor markets, Namdaemun Market is the largest of its kind in Seoul and one with the longest history.

    The most defining characteristic of the market is the sheer breadth of items that are sold there, giving rise to the saying, “There’s nothing you can’t find at Namdaemun Market.” At Namdaemun, one can buy clothing, bedding, kitchen utensils, interior decorations, cookies and snacks from around the world, and souvenirs made for foreign tourists. The small eateries lining the market’s alleyways sell many of Korea’s most popular street foods, providing tourists with a small “food heaven” in Seoul.

    Namdaemun Market’s Meokja Street

    Namdaemun Market also has many small restaurants that provide food for the shop owners and staff here. In particular, there are numerous restaurants selling dak gomtang (Korean chicken soup). The steaming bowls of dak gomtang served at these small, rather shabby-looking restaurants provide tourists a unique culinary experience that can only be found at Namdaemun Market.

    In the alley next to Exit 5 of Hoehyeon Station is the famous Namdaemun Kalguksu Street. Kalguksu (noodle soup) refers to wheat-flour noodles cut with a knife and served in a large bowl of broth, and is one of the most well-known Korean foods. But it is attractive to foreign tourists for a more practical reason: it is cheap and served in large portions.

    The kalguksu of Namdaemun Market is particularly famous as the noodles are all made by hand, not by machine. These handmade noodles are placed in an anchovy broth and boiled. This is then topped with fried tofu, powdered laver, and sesame seeds. Usually served with kalguksu is a bowl of barley or sticky rice in bibimbap style.

    Kalguksoo at Namdaemun Meokja Street

    Bibimbap at Namdaemun Meokja Street

    Most kalguksu shops serve a bowl of naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) with every order of kalguksu, and vice versa, allowing customers to experience the flavors of both.

    Namdaemun Kalguksu Street first formed just after the Korean War and still remains active today. On rainy days before its roof was installed, customers would eat their kalguksu with one hand while holding an umbrella in the other.

    Namdaemun Market is constantly evolving. In addition to stalls displaying pig’s heads, there are now clean and polished restaurants that attract many foreign tourists. These days, most visitors to the market are overwhelmingly foreigners, so much so that Chinese and Japanese is more often heard than Korean.

    Namdaemun Market is a must-see tourist spot for foreign visitors to Seoul and a great place to enjoy some shopping.

    Namdaemun Meokja Street