Local Markets in Korea: Suwon, not too far from Seoul (depending on traffic!) and Inheon market, close to Seoul National University.
Traveling to another part of one’s own country or to another country is a wonderful way to learn about the place, the people, the culture, the history and the cuisine—all the things that go to make up what’s special, unique or different about it, what defines its character.
One of our favorite activities anywhere (even at home) is to visit the local market. They may be daily or weekly, indoors or outdoors, but are always brimming with activity. It’s a lot of fun to wander around and see what kinds of fresh produce the market has, what kinds of breads, cheeses, meats, fish, and flowers. Often there will be stalls with local cooked foods too, to try. Depending on the country, we may find all kinds of olives and olive oils, or different herbs and spices. It’s always a flavorful, colorful, cheerful event.
At Suwon market and at Inheon Market, close to Seoul National University, I was fascinated most of all with all the really different items that seem very “exotic” to westerners, foods that we don’t typically find in the USA or at most European markets, like silkworms.
Some things I don’t recognize at all and can’t even guess what they are. Others I’m pretty sure that I’m not brave enough to try! For example, the red-hot spicy foods, cooked silkworms for sale, all kinds of seaweed and various roots, fungi and herbs for Oriental-style medicine and health. Many counties in the east prize traditional medicine—it’s been around for hundreds of years, so who am I to say it doesn’t work?
Here are just a few photos we took of those different culinary and herbal delights, a big part of Korean culture I believe.
Inheon Market: This local market takes place most days, in Nakseongdae near the Nakseongdae metro station, not too far from Seoul National University where we were staying.
Markets are one of our favorite places to visit in a city or town, as they can tell us so much about a country or an area and its cooking, cuisine and culture. So, when out hosts at the Workshop at the SNU campus asked us on our first full day there what we wanted to do, we asked if there was a local fresh food market.
It’s called Inheon Market, the same name as the local primary school. It’s a long narrow street lined with small stalls and shops selling every type of imaginable vegetable, root, and fish and shellfish (and some not-so-imaginable, or at least unknown to us), pork, rice and rice cakes, kimchi, red chile paste, soybean paste, snacks etc.
Many of the vegetables are seasonal, with lots only appearing in spring, so we felt very fortunate to see these “in the raw” here at the market, and then later during our month-long visit to taste many of them. Some of the greens (that we could find the word for) were: mugwort greens, garlic greens, day lily greens, bracken fronds (kosari), on left. Of the roots, we saw lotus root, and deoduk (no English).
Like many markets around the world, it’s vibrant, noisy, colorful, with odors wafting and voices calling out to buy some product.
We slowly wandered its length, stopping and asking innumerable questions. Our hosts were very happy to get out their electronic dictionaries and try to find an English word for some of the things we were seeing. Some could be translated, some not, as probably we just don’t have that item in our country. We were the only non-Koreans there, so it felt really “authentic”, that we were experiencing the market just as the locals do.
What did we see and learn? That Koreans love vegetables and seafood; that seafood can be fresh, dried, or preserved in a paste; that some seafood is very strange-looking; that rice in various forms is an integral part of their cuisine; that many foods are smothered in a bright red chile paste; that prices here at the market are very reasonable; that people are very friendly; that traditional foods have adapted to modern times (example, kimbap (rice rolls) stuffed with ham and cheese, or Spam, or kimchi).
It’s not easy to capture the essence of a market in words, so I’ll try to “summarize” in pictures. These are just a few of our photos, giving a brief look at the huge variety, the colors, the sometimes strangeness, and the different/new products.
Imagine a hill, rippling with rows and rows of bright green tea bushes. This is the Daehan Dawon Green Tea Garden.
On our first day of the road trip with Chang we drove to this plantation, in Jeollanam Province in SW Korea near the town of Boseong. Open daily 9am-6pm.
In the Boseong area there are many smaller tea plantations, but this is the largest and has featured in many Korean movies. Supposedly it’s ranked as one of Korea’s top tourist attractions, for Koreans and international visitors. We discovered it is a popular spot with Korean tourists year-round and certainly is in a stunning setting.
After parking, we approached along the lovely cedar tree path, almost like a tunnel, next to a small stream. Ahead is a steep hill covered in cultivated tea bushes that curve in rows following the contour of the hill. It’s amazing to see so many bushes in one place, and growing on such a steep slope. It was lovely to just wander around on the paths, trying for that elusive “great photo”. It was pretty crowded, but the area is large enough to largely absorb the crowds.
It’s a beautiful sight, with the rows of tea bushes at high elevation, surrounded by forests. Visually it’s a great spectacle, but actually not that educational, as there were very few information boards. The focus seemed to be more on eating and drinking with a tea theme. We thought they could do better in explaining how they process tea, what the differences are between green tea and black tea, a history of tea in Korea, for example.
What we did learn was about 4 grades of tea, all organically grown and produced, based on
seasons. In Korea tea leaves are collected 3 or 4 times a year, and taste and quality will depend on the time of picking. Woojeon Tea is made from the first young leaves picked after winter. It’s a premium tea produced in very limited quantities. Sejak is the most popular green tea, made from leaves picked during the first part of May before the leaf is fully matured. Joongjak, made from leaves ripened a bit more and picked by end of May, has a fuller taste. Ipha is made from fully ripened leaves picked in June and July.
A small pamphlet we got with our tickets does have some information. In very early days tea was cultivated in/by Buddhist temples, but in the Jeoseon Dynasty more widespread cultivation began in this area, as climate and soil were ideally suited.
This is Korea’s largest tea garden, started in 1939 but devastated during the Korean War. In 1957 the garden and surrounding woods were take over privately and built up again. Over time, millions of tea trees and other decorative trees (such as cedar, cypress, juniper, ginkgo, maple, bamboo, cherry, magnolia) were planted, creating a natural ecology area that gives shelter to many kinds of animals birds and insects.
It was also interesting for us when we tried to put this garden into context; it’s producing green tea, which is so famous and popular in many East Asian countries. We grew up in British colonial culture in which black tea is popular. I’ve tried green tea before in China and at home, as many of our students bring a gift of green tea. And of course, green tea icecream has become very popular in recent years—I think it came mainly out of Japan.
But, I’ve not seen so many other products using green tea as we see here. Noodles, rice, candy; face creams and face packs, green tea bath packs, body lotions, sun block; medicinal purposes, such as helping food poisoning and motion sickness etc. All on sale in the shops here. Green tea has the connotation and reputation of being healthy, so supposedly any of these products would be more healthy for you than one without green tea. The shops were all doing brisk business, and I’m sure any of these items would make great gifts or souvenirs.
Lunch with a view!
We had lunch here at the DaWon ShimTe Cafetaria, which was delicious and with a tremendous view across to the tea slopes. I had cold green tea noodles, and Rod and Chang had green rice bibimbap. You can also buy green tea shakes and green tea yoghurt. We opted for a leisurely green tea icecream at a small shop, before leaving.
That got me thinking about other ways to obtain salt, and one of the earliest in many parts of the world has been salt extraction from the sea or brine pools.
On our recent visit to South Korea our wonderful host Chang Kim took us on a road trip around the southwest part of the country. One of the days, on our way to the Naesosa Temple on the Byeonsan peninsula in the north part of Jeolla Province, we stopped to take a look at a huge salt field.
It’s called the Komso (Gomso) Salt Field, a large system of very shallow salt pans or salterns. It’s one of the few salterns in Korea that produces Cheonilyeom solar salt. Gomso is not on the ocean but along the Gomsoman Bay, adjacent to the sea, and covered canals bring in the sea water.
The pans are built on black tiles, which speeds up the evaporation process—it apparently takes about three days for one pond to dry out, leaving the salt ready for harvesting. Doing it this way produces very large salt crystals (which we tried to photograph but didn’t really succeed). The workers shovel the salt into a type of wheelbarrow and then in a very simple shed it’s funneled down and into bags.
During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), salt fields covered the area from Julpoman Bay to Gomsoman Bay, producing salt that was sent, along with rice, to the bigger cities.
Chang told us that, aside from its long history, this sun-dried salt is known for containing around 10 times more minerals than other salt, and has a special flavor because in May and June pine seeds drift into the salt pans.
Tourists are permitted although not many seem to come, and we were lucky to see people at work on some of the pans in the distance. When the weather is too hot in the summer (and I can attest that it does get very hot and humid) work is done mostly in the early morning.
At small stalls alongside the road we saw large bags of this salt for sale. A 20kg bag (44lbs) costs 15,000-18,000 Korean won (about US$ 13-16). Amazingly cheap!
The coast from Chaeseonkgang Cliffs to Gochang, which includes Gomso Salt Field, features a very well-developed wetlands area. See next post on the cliffs.
A Sensory Delight and a great tourist destination in Suwon
Farmers markets and traditional markets are great places to learn a lot about a country and a culture, so wherever we travel we try to find the local market. We wander around marveling at all the new and different produce, sometimes stopping to taste, sometimes buying, depending on the place.
I spent a couple of wonderful hours wandering around this market with Geonghe, Chang’s wife, as they live in Suwon and she knows it well.
The neighborhood around the Paldalmun Gate (south gate of Hwaseong Fortress) is the main business district of Suwon. Here, more than 300 stores and stalls are joined to make a huge public market place. It’s roughly in two sections divided by an open market street. Each section is a covered market with a maze of alleys, and stalls clustered together that tend to sell the same items. One side is devoted to clothes, accessories, shoes, traditional Korean clothes (like hanboks), linens, kitchen ware etc; the other to fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, fish, side dishes, spices, traditional Asian medicinal goods, and so on. Upstairs are more small shops, a coffee shop, exhibition spaces etc.
The market first opened in 1917 and ever since then the vendors have tried to preserve the traditional atmosphere and physical surroundings. Since it opened, this market has specialized in the traditional, such as garments and medicine, which I’m told are highly praised by customers for their outstanding quality.
The market has a lively vibe, which I found very exciting, as apparently do some 20,000 visitors to the market every day. An on-going maintenance project to keep the originality of the market began in 2002.
This is a small pictorial essay. We didn’t actually buy anything, but I “ooh-ed and aah-ed” all along the way, and we did have a coffee upstairs.