is worth a visit not just for the finger-licking good street food as all guidebooks promise but also for the experience of buying that street food and eating it in a traditional market. Not that I needed any convincing. I love visiting traditional markets. I have loved visiting traditional markets before they were ‘traditional’.
In the little town I grew up in Eastern India, my parents used to take me to the local bazaar every week. Too little to help in any other way my job was to hold the cotton tote bags tightly to my chest until the vegetable seller finished weighing baskets of potatoes, onions, carrots, brinjals, green beans my parents had picked out and nodded in my direction.
I would keep my eyes peeled for that signal and would immediately stand on my toes and hand the ‘vegetable bag’ to him or her. Then we would go to the fish section and the poultry section and I’d hand the ‘fish bag’ and the ‘poultry bag’.
More than the vegetable peels, fish scales, feathers and blood strewn alleys, more than the glinting knives and weighing scales, more than the stench of open drains and smell of sweat, more than the feel of weathered notes and wet coins exchanging hands, more than the loud street cries of merchants and haggling by their customers and the screeching of chickens about to be slaughtered, more than buzzing flies and limping dogs, more than the rough leathery hands of shop owners, more than the waves of people we pushed through and more than the glow of bulbs and hurricane lamps that painted everything a lurid yellow, more than anything at all, I remember how important I felt to be entrusted with this responsibility.
For my parents it probably was just a way to keep their child engaged but for me it was a big step up. Like all my friends I was in such a hurry to grow up.
A great deal of growing up has happened since.
These days if I were to make spaghetti meatballs, I’d get a cleanly wrapped portion of minced meat off a shelf inside a clean air-conditioned space. I buy lemons that come in protective casings such that I can’t touch or smell them.
Only when the fish monger showed my mother how deep red the gills of hilsa were and how firm its body was and how clear its eyes were would she pay him, but not without examining a few other pieces and definitely not without the friendly haggling.
And now if I need a bed sheet, I lift a finger and order it online.
Progress is essential and elemental, I know. Progress is important. Progress is also placing experiences similar to the ones I had as a child inside invisible glass cases and labelling them ‘traditional’ as though they are rare exhibits.
Progress is sending what once was commonplace on the road towards extinction and that maybe inevitable but it is disconcerting none the less.
So when I can read about Gwangjang market, built in 1905 and called Seoul’s oldest ‘traditional’ market and one of its largest, I knew I had to go, not just to sketch but to get a feel of the familiar while I still could, albeit in a foreign country.
Narrow lanes lined on either side with shops cheek by jowl selling pajeon, gimbap, sundaeguk, bibimbap and tteokbokki ran into one another like a maze. Massive waves of people from students, office workers, tourists to the elderly hikers you see a lot of in Korea rolled up from all directions to eat at those shops manned by hardworking ajummas in short perms and red lipstick. Sound of chatter and cacophony melded into the smell of hot oil and the lurid colour of shop signages. The glow of bulbs hanging low over trays of food added to the visual drama and lent the space a honky-tonk aura.
As opposed to the clinical white spaces we are used to shopping in with clearly marked aisles and properly arranged shelves, a traditional market is a place where the first order of business is to lose your bearings and be overwhelmed by what you see, hear and smell.
Check and check.
I had a vague idea of where I was.
Perhaps, the Jeon Alley.
Some dishes are so popular in Gwangjang Market that they have entire alleys dedicated to them! In Korean cuisine, Jeon is referred to pancake-like dishes made by pan frying a mixture of rice or flour batter with vegetables, meat, seafood and poultry in it.
I couldn’t have been in the Yukhoe (steak tartar) Alley or the Gimbap (similar to sushi) Alley considering all the fervid grinding of mung beans that was happening around me. The jerry-built enterprise right before me had 5 ajummas working together like a well-oiled machine. Two in yellow tops were stationed at the ‘kitchen’ frying Bindaetteoks (mung bean pancakes) and piling the golden discs one above the other on the counter; one was serving the pancakes to customers gathering on the long wooden table while two more were luring people in to the shop.
And in all this madness if any of them managed to catch a breath, they’d leave their stations and come over to check my progress. I was sitting on the ground wedged between two other Bindaetteok stalls. But I was sketching them.
In return the band of ajummas kept an eye on me, nothing more than a glance in my direction from time to time and once shooing a drunk guy away when he tried to get too friendly with me. I got sober visitors too. A tour guide stopped by, a magazine editor gave me her business card and an elderly couple bought me some cooling drinks (see above).
On my way out I got the ajummas to fix me a piping hot plate of mung bean pancake. And while I savoured the crispy goodness in my mouth, I saw three young backpackers doing the same and talking about how good it tasted and how cheap the food was (4000 won for two big pieces) and how glad they were to have visited. They couldn’t wait to tell their ‘mates’ all about it.
I hope they do, ad nauseam.
lies in its alleys as I found out on one of my sketching trips.
I had been waiting to go out sketching for a while but I’m slowly realizing in my first year in Seoul that to wait for the perfect day in the months of July and August is to wait forever. After two weeks of oppressive heat it has been raining incessantly.
Needless to say that I arrived at Insadong on a rainy afternoon and after securing a map with tons of information about the area from the tourist office (out of exit 6 of Anguk Station), I decided to do away with it. The rain was turning it into pulp.
Lying straight ahead was the 700 meters long and 12 meters wide pedestrian (on weekends) street called Insadong Gil, stretching from Anguk-dong to Jogno 2-ga. It has a 7 meters tall Korean calligraphy brush sculpture at the beginning which I had already seen on my earlier visit.
I was also done browsing through the street’s innumerable souvenir shops, folk handicraft stores, art galleries, Korean paper shops, had tipped my hat to world’s only Starbucks with its signage written in local language, visited a traditional tea house and checked out the quirky Ssamziegil mall.
As per the guidebooks I could have checked Insadong off my list of places to see. What more was there?
A curiosity laden turn away from the main commercial street into the atmospheric side alleys revealed the answer.
What I saw and then sketched seemed like an alternate Insadong, one I didn’t know existed – a watered-down version of the deeply cultural neighbourhood of 1930s selling antiques, books and art, way before its colonisation by coffee chains and cosmetic shops, before Korean war even.
First thing that hits you when you make this unplanned diversion is how quiet and empty the alleys are, a welcome respite from the neurotic busyness of the main strip. Barring a monk, a school girl and a delivery guy I hardly saw anyone. And then in the course of exploring this labyrinth of narrow arteries, one leading to another and sometimes ending abruptly in a cul de sac, you get a whiff of old Seoul that maybe gritty and rough around the edges but is authentic to the core.
With Insadong’s popularity with tourists in the recent years, rents on the main street have soared such that it can only be afforded by big commercial establishments, thereby pushing older, smaller businesses and artists to the winding back alleys laid out 500-600 years ago (dating back to the Joseon dynasty), where life is still quaint, unhurried and very ordinary.
I saw laundry drying on wires, potted plants outside wooden doors, beer bottles stacked in crates, cracked egg shells lying near a trash can filled to the brim, a plastic broom, a wind chime, music wafting out from open windows, someone napping on a red chair by the kitchen and pigeons hopping around, drinking rain water collected in little potholes where the road had caved in. An ajumma (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) was standing in front of her hanok (old Korean cottages) turned restaurant, caressing a snarly lap dog and staring at me with utter intrigue.
I was sitting on the steps of a closed bar in an alley I had just wandered in, and had started drawing. For the longest time ajumma maintained a distance from me, trying to understand what I was doing while pacing outside an imaginary fence that seemed to be between us.
I got to work, started tracing lines with my eyes and then put ink on paper.
Slowly but surely. A bunch of Absolut Vodka bottles, window slats and a door emerged.
I am always amazed how drawing makes you lose all sense of time. You surrender to this repetitive cycle of seeing, comprehending and mark making. Everything else becomes invisible. I find this heightened sense of focus the only way to connect with my new environment. You get to immerse yourself so deeply and wholly in the process that when you emerge, you feel a kinship with the place you were drawing. It doesn’t look as foreign as it did when you started out.
I like to believe that by connecting with my environment in such a way I blend in and don’t look as foreign to it too and become an ordinary person sitting in the corner doing something innocuous. That’s when imaginary fences vanish. Ajumma comes over. The dog too. They are thrilled I drew their house. The dog shows its appreciation by not snarling at me anymore and Ajumma by bringing me a steaming cup of coffee in a paper cup.
I must accept it, she insists. Then she takes my sketchbook and shows my sketch to her neighbours. They come closer to meet me. We huddle on the stairs, touch shoulders and giggle at our communicational ineptitude. Another cup of coffee is placed before me. When the neighbourhood delivery guy passes by, everybody raises their hands to wave at him.
I raise my hand to wave at him too, on impulse and realize that it doesn’t look out of place.