Seoul Experiences: Tongin Market Doshirak Cafe
Namdaemun Market and Gwangjang Market are arguably the top two traditional markets in Seoul for visitors but there’s a smaller but still nifty market in the northwest section of Seoul which I’d like to highlight today for its cool build-your-own “doshirak” or “bento” meal it offers. Basically, you pay for a little plastic lunch tray, which has a few compartments for different kinds of food, and also a string of ten coins. With your tray and coins, you are free to wander the market now, examine the different vendors and their offerings, and pick up the food and drinks of your choice. It’s a brilliant way to conveniently try out the wide variety of bites from the market and do so for the unbelievably low sum of 5,000 Korean won.
It’s surprisingly unknown, even among locals, and even I was skeptical about it until I recently tried it out.
Tongin Market actually traces its roots to the Colonial Era when the market was set up to serve the heavy Japanese population in the Hyoja-dong neighborhood. It has continued to be a staple for the residents nearby who come to purchase fresh produce, grains, meat, fish, and other good. There are also plenty of banchan stores, restaurants, and whatnot.
Overall though, there’s nothing extraordinary about the market- it’s neither as grand as Gwangjang Market or as lively as Noryanjin or Namdaemun.
But what it does offer is a fun make-your-own-doshirak (meal tray) allowing you to browse the market, select what you want to eat, and then enjoy the variety of fresh food. So instead of being tied down to just one or two stores to try their fare, you can sample from a number of places and what they have to offer!
If you’re wondering how this works, it’s actually rather simple. Begin by seeking out the doshirak center and café. It’s actually located within the same building as the Customer Service center and public restroom. From the entrance of Tongin Market (from the main street) it’s only about 100 meters or so until you’ll see the center on your right.
There’s a staircase in that building that leads up to the second floor. Go up and go towards the back to see the pay center. Simply pay 5,000 won to receive a black plastic tray and a bundle of coins (10) tied together. These coins are what you’ll use to pay the different vendors for the food you want. Note that rice and soup is separate (2 coins or 1,000 won each) so make sure to save a coin or two if you want those. Also note that the dosirak trays are per person and can’t be shared.
Now comes the fun part of shopping… for food! Not all the vendors participate but you’ll know which ones do because they will have a small sign that reads “dosirak café gamaengjeom” which basically means they are a member of the dosirak café affiliation. Depending on what you get, the food will cost different amounts of the coins you were given. Most fall in the 1 to 2 coins category per serving but some of the more grander, time staking dishes can cost more.
There are quite a few different vendors who sell everything from side dishes to popular mains (jabchae, donkatsu, jeyook bokkeum, etc) to even snacks such as rice cakes or beverages. You’ll want to really take your time browsing as many of the vendors sell different dishes. There’s a vendor that specializes in dumplings for example or a place that specializes in twigim (fried dishes aka tempura), etc. There are even seasonal offerings too such as snack sized versions of yeolmu guksu (young radish kimchi cold noodles), kongguksu (cold soy noodles), and mooksabal (mook with a cold tangy broth) served in plastic cups.
You’ll have a difficult time trying to decide what you want but often times, vendors will have samples (or let you sample). It’s especially great for those who are less accustomed to Korean food as one can try out a wide variety in one sitting. You can also take the time to sample the famed “gireum ddeokbokki” which is a sauce-less version of ddeokbokki unique to Tongin Market. There’s 3 or 4 vendors near the entrance that all claim they’re the original. For the dish, the thin rice cakes are cooked on a hot skillet with oil. You can get this ddeokbokki in soy sauce based or red chili flakes based but often times, if you order one, they’ll give you a sampling of the other variety to try too.
After you’ve picked up all you want (or you run out of coins, whichever comes first), bring your loaded tray back up to the dosirak café to find yourself a seat. Utensils and water can be found on the second floor as well. Be warned that at peak lunch times or on weekends, it might get packed but also note that there are additional seating on the third floor (with AC).
I’ve had the chance to try this dosirak system out a few times and I can’t say enough good things about it. The food is delicious (haven’t had a bad item yet), it’s fresh (you can taste the food is made daily), and it’s cheap. I always opt out of getting rice and using the extra two coins for another item and still I leave feeling satiated but not heavy. For bigger eaters you may want to purchase an additional item or two from the market but otherwise an adult should be able to leave feeling quite satisfied.
When you’re finished, take your tray back to the second floor and near the entrance is an area where you can dispose any food waste, dispose garbage (napkins and etc), put away cups and utensils, and stack your plastic tray. Very efficient, quick, and then you’re out on your merry way to enjoy more of the market or go elsewhere.
Though I had been to Tongin Market a few times before, I didn’t even know about this dosirak system but I’m glad I found out about it as I think it’s a great system. There’s fun in selecting what you want to eat and paying with the coins and the food is delicious, good, and cheap. As I said before, it’s great for those who are new to Korea, Korean food, or traditional markets but it’s also an excellent choice when you’ve got a group whose tastes all differ.
Definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been! Please note that the dosirak café’s hours are from 11 – 4 PM every day and it’s closed on Mondays and on the third Sunday of every month.
PS. Look what else I came across within the market.... def picked up 2 or 3 of these.
4 out of 4 stars
This is one of the best ways to sample traditional market food and Korean food in a clean, convenient setting that involves fun and accommodation to personal tastes. It’s worth a visit for locals and visits to Seoul alike.
서울특별시 종로구 통인동
Tongin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Head out from exit 2 and walk straight for about 600 meters until you see the Tongin Market entrance on the left. Enter and walk straight for about 100 meters or so until you see the dosirak café on the right.
http://tonginmarket.co.kr/mall/index.php but Korean only
There is an English language map of the shops here:
Please note that the dosirak café’s hours are from 11 – 4 PM every day and it’s closed on Mondays and on the third Sunday of every month.
If you save your receipt, you can get 500 won discount off of coffee and certain beverages in the market!