It was a late Saturday afternoon. I had just completed a 10-kilometer hike scouring the jagged ridges on Saryangdo, a small island near the coastal city of Tongyeong in the southern part of Korea. While I was prepared for the hike, clambering up and down the fixed ropes eeded to complete my trek took more out of me thatn I'd like to admit. Tht's why when I reached the dock to catch my ferry back to the mainland, I was thrilled beyond belief when I saw several pojangmacha lined up waiting for me.
Okay, so they weren't necessarily waiting for me, but you get the ide. They were there, sitting in all their orange-tented glory, ready for hikers and passers-by alike. In Seoul, pojangmacha, translated as "covered wagons" but easier to describe as street food stalls, are just about everywhere. Some specialize in sausages, sweet treats or spicy staples like tteokbookki, spicy rice cakes, and twigim, fried snakcs. Coming down from the mountain, I was hoping at least one, if not more, of the stalls would have my favorite Korean hiking snack, haemul pajeon, fried seafood pancake.
I neared the first stall but it was empty. My heart sank just a little, since I could tell by the burners and batter that whoever ran this stall had all the ingredients needed to make my beloved snack; however, he or she had momentarily stepped away. My gaze passed to the two other stalls nearby and was met with a delightful smile from a short ajumma, an older Korean woman. She beckoned me to come over by raising her arm and motioning to me. Despite being tired, I picked up the pace and obediently complied.
Her stall wasn't large. From what I could tell, she had a two-burner gas range under a griddle and a small prep area. The counter had about a one-foot lip sticking out from it, but was enough for me to sit down on the hard plastic stool and use it as a table.
"Annyeonghaseyo," I said sitting down.
Her eyes gleamed back. "Annyeonghaseyo," she said melodically.
Now my Korean isn't the best, but thankfully, when it comes to pronoucing food, I'm usually spot-on. While I couldn't craft a long, complete sentence inquiring about the menu, I simply intoned, "Haemul pajeon?"
A nod acoompanied by "Ne," or "yes" let m eknow that she understood. She said something I couldn't catch and when she sensed that I didn't comprehend, this wonderful woman made her sentence simpler. "Makgeolli?"
My eye lit up and I nodded again. She reached into a cooler and retrieved the standard green bottle that I know oh-so-well from Seoul and gave me a small bowl from which to drink. The she went to work. She fired up the griddle and laid down a layer of batter. The heat from the iron below quickly made a sizzling sound as it began to cook. She added stalks of green onion and bits of seafood to the mixture as well.
While she was cooking, I saw a few other members from our group approaching. They also looked haggard from the trail, so I called them over. When they saw me pouring makgeolli into bowls for them, they hastened their pace. Tired, they plopped down beside me along the cart's rim and we toasted not only to our adventure but also to the wonderful ajumma preparing our pajeon.
Out group quickly fell into a pattern of eating, drinking, and chatting. It is exactly this spirit of camaraderie that makes dining at a pojangmacha enjoyable. A group of people, friends and nonfrieds alike, coming together to eat, drink and be merry. We finished our mear, paid the tab, thanked our host, and quickly made our way to the ferry before it left port. This experience isn't unique or limited to Seoul. It's a facet of life across all of Korea, and one that I truly love.