When I first arrived in Korea I often walked the back-streets of Daejeon in the frigid winter winds. I was intrigued to see rows of tents, clad in orange or blue-striped plastic with see-through plastic windows. Shivering, I peered through their plastic windows to see seats, tables, food, and people.
The people sat in groups with food and drinks, huddling around heaters against the cold outside. I longed to go in: The tents seemed to be oases in the winter, shelter from the snow, and islands of comfort. What were these mysterious places?
They were (and are) the famous pojangmacha of Korea, places where any traveler can stop, briefly or at length, for a bit of inexpensive food, a bracing drink and a convivial atmosphere. Pojangmacha (布帳馬車, “covered wagon”) are something like a restaurant on wheels, a movable bar, or maybe even a psychiatrist’s office.
A quick glimpse at Korean television dramas reveals the continuing importance of the pojangmacha to Koreans: hardly a show goes by in which one character or another does not repair to the pojangmacha to hang out with friends or to drown their sorrows in a bottle of soju.
A pojangmacha can sometimes be confused by Westerners with a street food vendor or other food vendor working out of a tent. Don’t make this mistake. Koreans all know that a pojangmacha is a place you go to drink, and we’re not talking about juice here.
Today some places have even taken to calling themselves, indoor pojangmacha (실내포장마차), which have nothing to do with tents or carts. They’re essentially just bars, which have decided to adopt the name to in order to imply the inexpensive, casual atmosphere of the original version.
History Of The Great Pojangmacha
In one sense, pojangmacha are new: They have existed in Korea for fewer than 60 years. But in another sense, they carry on a long Korean tradition. For centuries, Korean peddlers provided goods, services and food by moving to where the customers were and not forcing their customers to come to them.
Pojangmacha are merely the latest manifestation of this type of Korean service; fast food and drink that is provided somewhere close to customers’ workplaces and homes.
Pojangamacha first began to spring up early in the 1950s in and around the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul. The first pojangmacha were quite different from their modern counterparts.
They were small cars and carts, exposed to the elements, which sold small snacks and drinks. Later, some clever merchants began to cover their carts with an orange tarp, provide stools to sit on, and sell small appetizers.
This eventually became the norm, with a tent containing a small cart and a handful of stools to sit on.
As time went by pojangmacha began to get larger and to feature tables. In the 1970s pojangmacha flourished in Seoul as the palli-palli (“hurry up”) culture of Korea kept Koreans at work late.
As Seoulites streamed out of work, they stopped at a pojangmacha for a quick drink and a bite to eat. Pojanchmacha menus have become increasingly diverse and the seating became even more comfortable.
The New Pojangmacha
Since just before the turn of the century, pojangmacha have undergone a major evolution. In areas like Jongno in Seoul, pojangmacha now offer extensive menus and there are even some with table service, an idea that was never envisioned by the creators of the original pojangmacha.
Some pojangmacha in Jongno and other areas now offer set menus, with a combination of individual snacks put together in one plate.
These inexpensive sets (as low as W2,000) feature traditional Korean food such as gimbap (rice rolls), tteokbokki (rice cake in pepper sauce) and sundae (Korean blood sausage). In addition, pojangmacha have begun to specialize, meaning that with a bit of research you can now find a much wider range of foods.
Finally, in a pojangmacha-esque improvisation, some restaurant owners tack on an orange tented section to the front of their establishments to keep out the winter cold.
Don’t Be Intimidated
The next time you’re wandering the streets of your city or town and feeling a bit thirsty or peckish—just look for that flash of orange plastic.
Inside you will find a remarkable array of food and a simple but potent range of alcohol. If you don’t speak Korean, don’t worry: everything should be laid out on the cart and you can simply point to the food you want prepared.
Stepping through the door for the first time can be daunting, but once inside, you’ll find the slight risk is worth it!
Vegetarians beware: not much in pojangmacha is meat-free (besides the drinks!).
Gyeranmari and tofu kimchi are somewhat safe choices for vegetarians.
Pojangmachas are usually cash-only businesses. No credit cards are allowed.
Pojangmachas do NOT have bathrooms. The good news is that pojangmacha are normally near public restrooms (though if you are worried, visit a pojangmacha near a subway station or park). Usually all you have to do is look a bit pained and say “hwajangsil?” (화장실, bathroom) and the proprietor will point you in the right direction.
Yes, that roll of toilet paper hanging in the pochangmacha is your napkin!
If you are cold, drink some of the hot broth that the odeng is cooking in. It’s free!
The Rules of Intoxication
If you’re drinking in a pojangmacha, remember the rules of Korean drinking etiquette.
Don’t pour alcohol into a cup that is not empty.
If someone pours for you, you pour back for them.
Hold the cup and if the person pouring is older than you, hold it with two hands.
The same is true for pouring a drink; if the person is older than you hold the bottle with two hands.
Finally, if you are drinking with someone older, it is customary to turn your head about 15 degrees away from your elder when you drink.
It won’t surprise anyone who has been in Korea to discover that the main beverage consumed in pojangmacha is soju.
In addition to this beverage of choice, beer and makgeolli (rice beer) are also commonly sold. Other drinks are available, but these three are the holy trinity.
Soju 소주, Makgeolli 막걸리, Beer 맥주
As pojangmacha have evolved, so have their menus, but there are some traditional favorites that have proven too popular to change.
The first seven are typical dishes that have been served for several decades and are still common today with some fading away, these are the OG’s of the pajangmacha. The final three items, more recent additions to the scene, are also much more accessible for most Westerners.
1. Dalkbal 닭발 | Chicken Feet
Think of dalkbal as the Korean version of buffalo wings: hot, spicy, and chewy. The bones are usually removed from the feet, which are then boiled in soy sauce. Be warned: even folks who can handle spicy food may quail at these.
Hagfish is one of the most famous dishes that accompany soju. They’re typically grilled on a charcoal fire and served with vegetables including red and green peppers. It’s supposed to be good for “stamina.”
3. Yache Twigim 야채튀김 | Fried Vegetables
These tasty deep fried veggies have a softer coating then regular deep fried food, they also go well with Makgeolli.
4. Ojingeo Hoe/Hanchi Hoe 오징어회, 한치회 | Two kinds of raw squid
These are two distinct types of squid, but we can’t tell the difference. They’re served with salt in sesame oil or with gochujang (red-pepper sauce).
Pig intestines are filled with chopped vegetables, glass noodles and pig’s blood and served salted with liver slices. If that sounds like a bit much, try to think of sundae as the Korean version of haggis.
8. Gyeranmari 계란말이 | Folded Egg
This is pretty close to a Western omelette, and if you are accompanied by a picky eater, or one who doesn’t like spicy food, this along with odeng is the safest choice.
9. Jeyuk bokkeum 제육볶음 | Spicy Stir-Fried Pork
This can be a tad spicy for the cooler palate, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the chicken feet (above).
10. Kimchi dubu 김치두부 | Kimchi with Tofu
An extremely popular dish, the cool soft taste of the tofu matches extremely well with the spicier kimchi. The tofu can be a challenge for the chopstick-impaired.
Crazy Pojangmacha Street Food
Over recent years the pojangmacha stalls have started to adapt to the changing palate of the younger generation. Crazier street has started to pop up to keep the street food popular, here are a few examples of things you might find today at a pojangmacha, most revolve around hotdogs..
1. French Fry Corn Dogs (만득이 핫도그)
A corndog surrounded by a massive glob of french fries deep fried. What’s not to love about that?
2. Bacon Wrapped Hotdog (베이컨 랩 핫도그)
Pretty self explanatory, another food creation i’m pretty sure everyone has made or wanted to make at 3:00am.
3. Tornado Potato Hotdog (회오리 감자 핫도그)
This is a hotdog on a stick with a spiral of potato. Usually you would just get the potato wrapped around the stick but these guys upgraded and stuck, once again, a hotdog in the middle.