Meagan Mastriani turns to street food to get her through the freezing Korean winter.
By Meagan Mastriani
As a child of the American South, my preparation for winter included little more than buying a couple of multi-colored sweaters at the Gap each year. Temperatures rarely dropped below freezing, and even the suggestion of snow was enough for the whole county to cancel school for the day. Apart from a few week-long vacations up North, I had never been exposed to true winter weather.
Simply put, I didn’t know what cold was until I experienced my first Korean winter. And it was an experience, to say the least. My friend even taught me how to say “I’m so cold I want to die” in Korean — definitely not a phrase I would ever have uttered at home in Georgia. My rainbow sweater collection was no match for the bone-chilling temperatures here, and I was anything but prepared.
Luckily, the locals have it all figured out, and I’ve learned how to get ready for the upcoming freeze. After centuries of dealing with the nasty weather, Seoulites have discovered the most ingenious ways to battle the cold — things like heated floors, fleece-lined leggings, instant hand warmers, and steaming hot street food. As I brace myself to endure a second winter in Seoul, I’d like to devote my next few columns to some of the street foods that got me through the first one.
One of my street stand favorites is called bungeoppang, literally “carp [fish] bread,” after its unique shape. When I saw them during my first trip to Korea, I was skeptical. Given Koreans’ love of seafood, I was worried there might actually be fish inside. But once assured they were fish-free, I tried one, promptly burnt my tongue on the piping hot goodness, and became totally hooked. I’ll never think of my first visit here without remembering all the times I insisted on stopping for bungeoppang.
So, if not fish, what exactly is in these little guys? They’re actually made in a special iron by pouring in a little waffle batter, adding some sweet red azuki bean paste, and covering it up with a little more batter before pressing. It’s a real treat to watch the vendors prepare the bungeoppang fresh before your eyes. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you may have tried their version, called taiyaki.
After asking around and doing my own research, I still haven’t found a definitive answer as to why these cakes are shaped like fish. Perhaps the best answer is simply because it’s fun. And let’s face it — when it’s “so cold you want to die,” you need a little bit of fun. There’s nothing like biting the head off a fish to add some whimsy to a bitter winter day.
For just 1,000 KRW (about $1US), you can get a bag with three fish inside (a real steal). In my humble opinion, they’re meant to be shared, and a three-way split is the perfect way to get rid of that change jingling in your pockets as you walk down the street. The hot bread warms the hands, and sharing with friends warms the heart. It’s the perfect equation for all-around winter warmth! But be warned — the warmth can be too much of a good thing if you’re impatient. It’s best to wait a few minutes before digging in (your tongue will thank you).
This pastry is so popular in winter that there are stands selling it on practically every block. Rest assured, if you ever find yourself in Korea on a cold day, you’re never too far from a bungeoppang stand. In addition to the classic fish version, there are some other noteworthy spin-offs. For example, the photo above shows gyeranppang, “chicken’s egg bread,” in an ovular shape with a whole egg cooked inside. There’s also gukhwapang, “chrysanthemum bread,” appropriately shaped like a flower.
Perhaps because it has a cute face, or perhaps because it holds sweet memories of my first encounters with Korea, bungeoppang has a lot of sentimental value to me. Those crispy waffle fish will always have a special place in my heart (and stomach). Here’s hoping my finned friends can get me through another year!