Although Insadong is a fairly large area of Seoul, there is one quaint little street in particular, known as Insadong-gil, that comprises many tea shops and handicraft stores that are perfect for tourists. It reminded me a lot of the backstreets of Tokyo or Kyoto in Japan, and there were lots of calligraphy (hanji) outlets here too which only added to the Japanese comparisons. As a wider district, though, Insadong is also memorable for its seafood and its mobile canteens known as pojangmacha which entertain Seoulites after dark.
While the Myeongdong district is famous for its tornado potatoes, and the Hongdae district for its potato hotdogs, it is here in Insadong where another ‘cool’ Korean street food favourite was invented – the ice cream corn cone. The exact name of this snack in English is hard to decipher, but it’s essentially an ice-cream filled snack with a corn-based exterior. Some of them come in a J-shape, and the ones I saw prominently in Insadong where shaped like twisted umbrellas – even hanging from the top of the shop! When you buy one, the vendors will rip open the top of the corn cone and insert the ice cream from their dispensing machine inside. Chocolate or syrup can be added free of charge (or at least it was free here at Insadong). These so-called J-cones have been exported all over Asia, and are especially prominent in the Philippines, where I enjoyed one at the SM Mall of Asia!
By day, Insadong is a pretty cool area, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit here every day. There are more enthralling areas of Seoul to spend the day, such as Myeongdong, Hongdae, or even Itaewon (if you like that kind of thing). However, one thing that Insadong is really known for is its fresh street food, especially the seafood variety. Odeng (fish on a stick) is very popular here, and I am told the best kimbap in Seoul can be found here lining the streets.
As night falls, there isn’t really a permanent market in Insadong (not that I know of) but it is known for its array of pojangmacha. These are mobile street cafés that allow Seoulites the chance to sit down and sample their favourite dishes on portable tables and chairs, rather than walk around eating it all on a stick. The authorities in Seoul don’t actually like the pojangmacha as they believe it gives the city a bad reputation and adds to the litter and pollution. Because of this, the authorities have been closing down pojangmacha all over the place – yet in Insadong, many remain.
I guess a pojangmacha is much like a pasar malam in Malaysia, although pojangmacha do not sell goods or souvenirs, just food. The whole point is to buy some food sit down under cover of the canvas and soak up the atmosphere with other like-minded Koreans. I bought myself some kimbap and tteokbokki (which were WAY TOO SPICY) but it was difficult to find a seat anywhere. People spread out and unless you want to sit on the same table as someone else (a bit awkward, especially since Koreans can be very unwelcoming towards foreigners) then you may be better off eating it as a ‘takeaway’ like I did. However, it wasn’t for the want of trying that I didn’t sit down at a pojangmacha tent, and I still got to sample the traditional night time atmosphere and food here at Insadong.