Pojangmachas literally mean “covered wagons.” At night, the streets of Seoul and other South Korean cities become enveloped by makeshift plastic tents, while trucks and vans are converted into kitchens where all kinds of greasy food are prepared. These street vendors are so commonplace that they are regularly featured in Korean dramas as theyÂ feed the nightlife of Korea, from the party-going teenagers to the white-collar workers out for late night drinking sessions.
Pojangmachas started sprouting up around South Korea in 1997, when the Asian economic crisis hit the country, and have remained popular for two reasons. First, their prices are far more affordable than their posh restaurant counterparts as they don’t pay as much rent for prime dining spaces. Many garage areas and parking spots during the day are taken over by these vendors come nightfall. Second, the ambiance is very lively. Positioned near places where partying, drinking, shopping and clubbing take place, they are patronized by groups of friends and office-mates who wish to sate their appetites, chatting up each other and even the proprietors in the process. Only a few seats are provided to create an atmosphere conducive to banter, presenting an aura of frugality and warmth that the posh restaurants could never deliver. Thus, pojangmachas serve as informal extensions to the nightlife, even serving the famous Korean alcohol called soju (made of fermented rice, sweet potatoes and barley) so that drinking can continue unabated. A more exotic variety called bek seju is soju flavored with licorice, ginseng and other herbs.
The winter cold doesn’t stop business for these outdoor establishments: the owners simply roll down thick plastic walls to keep the heat in and operated kerosene heaters for the comfort of the diners. Hot and spicy stews are dished out to awaken sleep-deprived students and warm up chilled limbs. One such soup isÂ sundubuchigae, a spicy concoction of soft tofu, egg, mushrooms, and vegetables. Another common offering is tteokbokki, rice cakes sliced from a long cylindrical form and cooked in thick red pepper paste stock, and served in hot soup. Other street foods are sundae (Korean blood sausage), gimbap (rice and other ingredients rolled in seaweed), chon (Korean pizza), odeng (fish paste and fu-chok on a stick) and anju, which are dishes that accompany drinking. Baskets of twigim line the counter, prawns, hard-boiled eggs and vegetables dipped in batter and deep-fried. There are dakkochi, deep-fried chicken nuggets smothered in sweetish chili sauce, sprinkled with sesame seed and served skewered, as well as goon mandu, dumplings stuffed with minced pork, Chinese glass noodles and spring onions.
If you want to try a pojangmacha, try visiting the few ambitious operators who have upgraded from mobile layouts into permanent fixtures. These are usually found near the large universities (such as Konkuk University) where business is fueled by the examination-studying students. The Konkuk pojangmacha street can be treached by taking the subway green line to Konkuk University station and walking out of exit number 2. If you are averse to spicy meals, make sure to tell the vendor “not hot” when they ask how hot you want your food. A typical sequence drinking sessionÂ starts with eating tteokbokki and odeng at a pojangmacha before hitting the bars for soju and anju, then head to a gimbap or ramen house for the noodles, then proceed to a second round at another bar.