Hidden Jeon Point at Gongdeok Market

Jeon’s restaurants are lined up on either side of Buchimgae Alley in Gongdeok Market. (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

The official campaign period for the upcoming presidential election kicked off on Tuesday, with most candidates heading to traditional markets on the first day. One of the promises made to these strains in the last election was the revitalization of traditional markets, a promise clearly aimed at traders.

Before the onslaught of mass retailers, traditional markets were crowded day and night, buzzing with vibrant energy.

Today, many traditional neighborhood markets are struggling to survive as shoppers shun them in favor of discount retailers and large supermarkets. It is often the aroma of traditional market restaurants that beckons people to visit.

Around Exit 5 of Gongdeok Station, you will notice an array of shops and a sign with a small portrait of an old lady. A sign reading ‘Mapo Grandma’s Bindaetteok’ marks the entrance to Gongdeok Market’s famous Buchimgae Alley.

The jeon (Korean fried pancakes) at Gongdeok Market, also called buchimgae, date back to the 1980s.

Different types of jeon, or buchimgae, are neatly stacked on trays.  (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

Different types of jeon, or buchimgae, are neatly stacked on trays. (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

Mushroom jeon wrapped in egg batter is grilled with sliced ​​chili toppings.  (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

Mushroom jeon wrapped in egg batter is grilled with sliced ​​chili toppings. (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

At the stalls of jeon restaurants, more than 50 kinds of colorful jeon and fried bites are cooked every morning. Composed of vegetables, seafood and meat, they are neatly stacked in rows.

The unique charm of jeon spots in the market is that customers can choose different types of jeon in one shopping cart. They are priced by weight, but a small basket of jeon usually costs around 7,000 won and a large one 14,000 won.

For thirsty souls, Gongdeok makgeolli, a type of traditional rice wine, is waiting in every jeon restaurant. Unlike most Korean makgeolli breweries outside of Seoul, Gongdeok makgeolli is made in Daeheung-dong, just a few minutes from the market.

One weekday afternoon, a man in his sixties recalled happy days at the market. “No one would believe how crowded this place was a few years before the pandemic. Even the regulars don’t seem to come these days,” the man said.

When asked what he thought of the continued strong presence of Buchimgae Alley, the man smiled as he pointed to the end of the alley.

“In the shops opposite, we have fun choosing what we want, directly at the counter. There on your left is another smaller place that cooks fresh jeon the minute you order. Only Mapo and connoisseurs go there.

Leading to the end of the path is a red sign that reads “40 years of family tradition, Kaesong-style buchimgae” for Moisae Buchimgae. The sign has a portrait of a man who appears to be the owner.

Walking in to order a medium-sized modeumjeon (assorted jeon), I am greeted by the owner, who casually offers a bottle of Gongdeok makgeolli to die for with the jeon.

A set of medium-sized modeumjeon (assorted jeon) and Gongdeok makgeolli are served at Moisae Buchimgae in Gongdeok Market.  (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

A set of medium-sized modeumjeon (assorted jeon) and Gongdeok makgeolli are served at Moisae Buchimgae in Gongdeok Market. (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

Nokdujeon, or Korean mung bean pancakes, are made at Moisae Buchimgae in Gongdeok Market.  (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

Nokdujeon, or Korean mung bean pancakes, are made at Moisae Buchimgae in Gongdeok Market. (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)

Kaesong-style buchimgae are not as well-known as other North Korean dishes such as mandu and naengmyeon, which vary by region.

Moisae Buchimgae jeon are prepared upon receipt of an order and take about 15 minutes to serve. The jeon didn’t have a particularly strong flavor or aroma, but the texture was less crispy and much softer compared to those in nearby jeon shops.

“My parents are from Kaesong, so I grew up with their style of buchimgae and manduguk (dumpling soup),” said Park Jeong-hwan, owner of Moisae Buchimgae. “The difference I can tell you is that we add tofu in our signature dongerangtaeng (meatball-shaped jeon) stuffing. My mother-in-law is a farmer, so we also get fresh ingredients from her from Gyeonggi Province.

A dish of modeumjeon costs 17,000 won to 55,000 won depending on its size, and mandu jeongol (dumpling stew) is 25,000 won to 35,000 won. The place fills up quickly after 6 p.m., as the market adjoins tall office buildings.

Although some remain open on weekends, most jeon restaurants in Gongdeok Market are open five days a week, including Moisae Buchimgae.

By Kim Hae-yeon ([email protected])

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