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Friday, October 28, 2011

Kalguksu alley and Gamegol mandu (Namdaemun market)

Say you're at Hoehyeon Station and you want to enjoy a quick, power lunch in an animated place, but you don't have time to go through all the alleys of Namdaemun Market. I suggest a couple of mandu at Gamegol to tame your hunger, and an express full course in Kalguksu alley to fill you up.

Take the entrance at exit 6 and about twenty meters to your left, you'll see Gamegol's yellow sign. There's no place to sit inside but a busy team preparing the dumplings, check this video out :

Gamegol proposes two main varieties of dumplings for pick-up : meat and spicy. I like hot stuff but the latter doesn't have anything special. On the other hand, the meat mandu, always a classic, tastes just perfect. Their medium size makes them an ideal snack on the go : king mandu are usually big and inconvenient, a challenge when you're walking across a busy market. Furthermore, with a giant dumpling, not every bite has the right skin / filling mix, and the temperature can't be even all the way (even for I, ever the voracious wolf).

Now move back a few meters towards the market gate. To your right (same side as Gamegol), a kalguksu place signals the narrow entrance to Namdaemun's famous kalguksu alley (in Korean Namdaemun Kalguksu Golmok / 남대문칼국수골목).

Like in Gwangjang Market with gimbap (see "
(Gimbap) Drug Wars in Gwangjang Market"), a me-too war is raging in this short covered corridor where a dozen mini restaurants propose basically all the same menu for the same price (around KRW 4,000).

That's good marketing : competitors don't fight on price or on quality because in the end all players would lose money, and they don't make much to start with. So all noodle soups have the same ingredients, which are transparently exposed for every visitor to see. The actual battle lies at the "seobiseu" level : the "service" goodies offered in the package (here a soup, there an extra naengmyeon...). Tenants bark at you from all directions to nail you on their table. Even when all stools are occupied and a second row of customers is waiting. It's part of the game.

I opted for the furthest afield to the left, Seoul Jib. They propose a choice between different dishes, but eventually you eat all of them : a full portion for the main one, three smaller yet significant portions for all others. I majored in bori bibimbap (barley), and enjoyed the kalguksu / soup / naengmyeon combo. They call themselves "Seoul House" but the cooks are from countryside Gyeongsangdo. Simple, delicious, fulfilling food for only 3 euros / 4 bucks (KRW 4,500) !

As you can see, this short alley is relatively quiet but still busy long after rush hour (video taken around 14:15 PM):

Gamegol son wangmandu / 가메골 손 왕만두 (mandu)
Namdaemun Market - Tel +82.2.755.2569
Seoul Jib / 서울집 (kalguksu)
Namdaemun Market kalguksu alley

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

(Gimbap) Drug Wars in Gwangjang Market

Sunday afternoon. In this dark alley of Gwangjang Market, all shops are closed except Monyeo Gimbap.

Surprise: hundreds of people are queueing for their fabled "mayak gimbap" (this "drug gimbap" owes its name to its supposedly addictive flavor). It took us over thirty minutes to get our fix, and we're in the dead middle of the afternoon ! Check it out :

Each dose costs KRW 2,500 and comprises 8 mini-rolls (not sliced) packed in a plastic box, along with one portion of mustardish sauce and two toothpicks (to make the injections as safe as possible).

Business is good: the dealers have hardly time to chat before moving to the next junkie, and even if they restrict two doses per head, their big metal buckets are quickly emptied. The boss then rides his motorbike to the lab and comes back five minutes later.

I'm not at all an expert in drugs but frankly, this one didn't make me fly. Yet I love gimbap and this one is more than ok. I liked the way they cut the carrots, in thin julienne instead of one big stick. The 'vinaigrette' may taste exotic to Korean palates, less to a French one.

As you can notice on the above video, the atmosphere is rather grim because this part of the market doesn't work on Sundays. Monyeo Gimbap is still located in the center, but fellow merchants recently told them to move their point of sale: the JoongAng Ilbo made a paper on their 'drug', and packs of new customers arrived, congesting the whole street all day long, every day of the week.

Yet nature abhors a vacuum, and rival dealers have been proposing their own 'mayak gimbap' long before the article. I saw four or five of those, even one specialized in kids (boy are drug dealers shameless marketers !). More than a few peopled queued there too, oblivious of the fact that this was not the real stuff.

Note that another joint recommanded by JoongAng Ilbo, Sunhuinae Bindaetteok, doesn't draw as many visitors, so it didn't have to leave the bindaetteok alley of the market. Jongno Bindaetteok remains my favorite, but theirs tastes - and looks - very good too :

The heart of Gwangjang Market is open on weekends, and the food section remains one of my favorit visits. But the atmosphere cannot be compared to week days : this old market is much more lively, and all kinds of people working in the area come to feast joyfully on great pig feet, sundae, bindaetteok, pajeon, and yes gimbap.

Monyeo Gimbap (머녀 김밥)
(the authentic 'mayak gimbap' - 원조 마약 김밥)
Tel +82.2.2264.7668
Sunhuinae Bindaetteok (순희네빈대떡)
Tel +82.2.2268.3334
Gwangjang Market, Yeji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A new mayor for Seoul, a new landscape for 2012

As expected, PARK Won-Soon won the 10.26 mayoral elections by a wide margin (53+/46+). Rival NA Kyung-won did close the gap following successful TV debates (see "Park-Na debate on KBS"), and she even took the lead in polls, but a scandal involving president LEE Myung-bak (suspicious conditions for land acquisition regarding his future residence and police staff) spectacularly inverted the trend, and a final push from PARK's sponsor AHN Cheol-soo buried all remaining hopes for NA, for whom PARK Geun-hye proved more a drag than a boost.

With both local candidates lacking OH Se-hoon's charisma and reach, Seoul served more than ever as a national test, the results confirming structural political divides between rich and poor districts, and between younger generations and older citizens.

At the national level, PARK Geun-hye definitely took her first major blow since the GNP leader and the founder of AhnLab are supposed to face each other for next year's presidential elections. A symbol of paleo-conservatism, PARK Chung-hee's daughter has been around for years without disclosing any sign of appetence for reform. A total newcomer in politics, AHN Cheol-soo has yet to prove his capacity to manage and reform an administration. His best card remains his Independant label : traditional parties have lost all appeal and particularly to the country's middle class and younger generations.

PARK Won-Soon won with the support of a liberal coalition but as an Independent. Focusing on the demolition of his predecessor's heritage or sterile witch huntings following the absurd battle for free lunches at school (see previous episodes) would pave the way for a noxious presidential campaign next year.

Seoul must remain on the positive path set by OH, who boosted the city's attractiveness at the global as well as at the local level : 78% of Seoulites feel they belong to the capital compared to only 65% in 2006.

The new mayor must now work on bringing all Seoulites together, confirming the city's positive evolutions, a setting an ambitious but sustainable vision for the future.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Park-Na debate on KBS

The October 26 Seoul Mayoral race (and the traditional mudslinging contest that comes with it) is raging between GNP nominee NA Kyung-won and AHN Cheol-Soo's protégé PARK Won-soon, the independent who defeated the DP favorite PARK Young-sun in the liberal primaries.

Both candidates debated yesterday on KBS, and it's hard to tell who will prevail.

NA looked definitely more ready for the job, the former lawyer exposing a clear vision and a perfect understanding of all key challenges and issues when PARK remained at the principles level, refusing to enter into any details, even regarding his strategy*. Oddly, the representant of the opposition looked on the defensive against the "incumbent", who seeked a positive approach reminiscent of OH Se-hoon's.

PARK struck exclusively the emotional chord, putting sometimes too much emphasis on his Beautiful Foundation (half of his final one-minute pitch !), and I guess he appealed better to the older segment of the audience. But frankly, from what I saw yesterday, this man doesn't seem to understand what the job is all about, what's at stake for the future of Seoul. He did enter the race quite late as a total outsider, but a minimum of preparation was expected.

PARK also exposed a suicidal stubbornness regarding the "Younghwa Bridge" episode : 30 of the 40 bn KRW needed for the renovation have already been invested, but he said he would leave it like that, just to illustrate the waste of money caused by previous administration (OH Se-hoon). PARK confirmed that yesterday, even when reminded that it would mean more hassles and traffic jams for Seoulites (if you take this bridge one of these days you understand the statu quo is not an option, and the bridge had to be renovated because it had caused many accidents in the past). Needless to say, NA pointed out his irresponsible attitude and the fact that he was, again, more into criticizing than proposing.

Still, NA remains behind in the polls. And a NA win would mean more months of cohabitation around City Hall...

Either way, let's hope Seoul will not lose its momentum.

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Hangeul exports to Indonesia subject to dumping ?

From the start*, the promotion of Korea's alphabet in the Indonesian city of Bau-Bau (on a Southeastern Sulawesi island) has always looked much stronger on the "supply" side than on the "demand" side. So I'm not very surprised to learn that the people supposed to adopt hangeul are becoming more... demanding as they get closer to accepting the gift.

The Korea Times reveals that Bau-Bau mayor (Amirul Tamim) is now asking for infrastructures that never were part of the deal**. Not to the Hunminjeongeum Society, the Korean association that initiated the operation, but directly to Seoul Metropolitan Government, apparently caught into the trap after
the visit of an Indonesian delegation in late 2009.

Koreans are now weighting the pros of cons of giving in to blackmail, because that's basically what it comes down to : "You showed me the letters ? Now show me the money !"

But there shouldn't be any ultimatum. And the fundamental question should be asked to Mayor Tamim : do you really want this alphabet ? The Hunminjeongeum Society desperately wants to plant a hangeul flag overseas, but if the adoption of Hangeul doesn't happen naturally, it will never happen.

I'm pretty sure King Sejong would never have wanted this beautiful alphabet forced down the throat of an Indonesian tribe. Or subject to bribery or dumping, like some vulgar kind of consumer goods.

At last, there is some evolution on the city website since
2009 (beyond the URL, now :

Thanks to small icons in the upper right corner, visitors now have a choice of language between Indonesian and Korean or, to be more accurate, between "Indonesia" in bahasa Indonesia and "Korean" in English. Unfortunately, leads to this blank page with the message "Website will be back soon" :

I haven't checked the site since 2009, so I can't tell if the said website has ever existed. But since the message is written in English, I wouldn't bet a buck on it.

To be continued (?).

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* see "
Hangeul lands in Bau-Bau, Indonesia... to save the Cia !" and "Hangeul, take a Bau-Bau"
** see "
Hangeul education on Cia Cia stalled"

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