Nestled between hanbok rental shops and the renowned Gyeongbokgung Palace lies an 80-year-old traditional market known as Tongin Market (통인시장). It’s no secret that Jongno-gu is home to more than a few traditional markets, yet Tongin Market is quite original in that it specializes in build-your-own “dosirak,” or lunchboxes. Similar to a Japanese bento, Korean dosirak can be found at convenience stores all over the country, but at Tongin market you can get an empty lunchbox and then go around from vendor to vendor to create the lunchbox of your Korean food dreams.
Coming up the stairs from Exit 2 at Gyeongbokgung Station on your way to the market you’re greeted by a cozy and quaint street, home to new coffee houses dwelling in long-established buildings. If you look close enough, you can appreciate remnants of the hanok architecture hiding in plain sight amongst posh bakeries, hanbok rentals, and restaurants. It’s a matchless example of the tug-of-war that occurs between the modern and timeworn buildings residing throughout the Jongno-gu district.
After a five-minute saunter down Jahamun-ro (the street where Bong Joon-ho filmed the long, rainy staircase scene in “Parasite“) , you’ll find the entrance to the Tongin Market on your left. You’ll be lured inside by the enticing aromas of food stalls with ajummas busy at work, organizing and selling an endless array of delicacies.
Take a quick spin around the market to check out the selection, then head upstairs to the “Coin and Lunchbox cafe” on the second floor. For a meager sum of 5,000 won, you’ll receive a plastic lunch tray, like that used by school children, and ten “yeopjeon” coins to exchange for your favorite foods downstairs. Yeopjeon is an ancient form of Korean currency, dating back to 1678, which was used until the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
Now it’s time to start building your perfect Korean dosirak! Take your lunchbox, yeopjeon, and appetite down the stairs, into the heart of the market, where you can peruse an abundance of traditional Korean street food. You’ll find many local favorites, including jeon, kimbap, meat skewers, and more! Before you go too wild, remember to check for the sign indicating that the vendor participates in the dosirak program. Each dish is typically two yeopjeon, with select banchan costing one yeopjeon.
Once you’ve filled your lunchbox to your liking, head back up to the cafe, where you can find rice, soup, and coffee for a small price to complement your dosirak. The cafeteria exudes a warm and casual atmosphere, bringing locals and tourists alike together to revel in and celebrate a taste of Korea’s history. You can enjoy your dosirak on the spot or wrap it up for later.
Whether you live in the neighborhood or you’re out seeing the sights in Jongno-gu, Tongin Market makes a perfect lunch pit stop. So, grab your foodie friend and head to the dosirak cafe to experience a new way of doing lunch.
Location and Hours: Weekdays 11a.m. to 3 p.m. Weekends 11a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed: Mondays and Public Holidays
18, Jahamun-ro 15-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 종로구 자하문로15길 18