Savoring Seoul: When It’s Pouring, It’s Pajeon

It’s monsoon season in Seoul, which means lots of rain. Which in turn means that Meagan Mastriani heads for Pajeon Alley.
By Meagan Mastriani

Food and weather are strongly connected in traditional Korean culture. Planning a dinner menu might be as easy as turning on the forecast some days. Of course, right now you don’t even need to watch the Weather Channel to know what to eat.

It’s monsoon season here in Seoul. Which means lots of rain. Which means pajeon and makgeoli are sure to be on the table. Pajeon is a savory pancake-style dish, and makgeoli is rice wine. Both are ultra-common in any part of the city, but there is one alley near Kyung Hee University that specializes in this rainy day cuisine.

“Pajeon Alley”, as it’s called, is a narrow sidestreet overflowing with seedy-looking pajeon restaurants. One of the most well-known fixtures is Nakseo Pajeon. Step inside this crowded hole-in-the-wall, and you can see where it got its name. “Nakseo” means “scribble”, and the walls are covered in notes and doodles. Once inside, bustling old women hurry you past the stove, seat you at a small table in a noisy room, and bark at you to order something — quick. It’s busy. They point to a menu hanging on a wall. It’s short — the restaurant carries only a few dishes. In fact, the drink list is longer than the food menu. It’s obvious Nakseo Pajeon is a dive. But make no mistake, it’s a true gem.

It’s the kind of place where you feel you’re getting a truly “Korean” experience, if you can forgive the cliche. The tables are always filled with a variety of people from all walks of life — young, old, chic, shabby — all enjoying the same green onion pancakes and cheap rice wine. A large meal and a bottle of makgeoli won’t cost you much at Nakseo, but it’s not just for those on a budget. Koreans aren’t food snobs, and nobody here seems to be afraid to take off his shoes and share a nice plate of pancakes. The fare might be cheap, but it’s not for lack of quality. Nakseo is crowded for a reason. The food is delicious.

The pajeon comes quickly and is served cut up in a large wooden tray. It’s the thickest, widest pajeon I have ever seen, about the size of a small pizza. In true Korean tradition, it’s meant to be shared, and just one plate can satisfy a table of four. Inside the pancake are green onions, kimchi, and octopus. There is lots of filling, but the crispy, greasy crust is the best part. No other pajeon I’ve had in Korea could compare in flavor or texture. Lightly dip it in the salty brown sauce, and it’s perfection.

Also not to be missed at Nakseo is the tofu kimchi, which is every bit as tasty as it is beautiful. It’s grilled and served on a large black pan, still sizzling a bit when it reaches the table. Again, this is meant to be shared among friends (if you have any room left after the pajeon!).

Of course, no rainy day would be complete without rice wine. Makgeoli is the most common variety, and dongdongju is a very similar (sweeter) alternative. The wine comes in a large plastic bottle that you pour into a large bowl and serve with a wooden ladle into smaller drinking bowls. Cupping a bowl of makgeoli in your hands and sipping slowly is a truly wonderful experience. Almost enough to make you wish for another rainy day. (Almost.)

And if you ever do happen to be in Korea during monsoon season, you’ll have plenty of rainy nights to stop in the other restaurants in pajeon alley. Nakseo serves only seafood pancakes, but there are some other great places where you can sample varieties like buchujeon (with leeks), nokdujeon (with mung bean), hobakjeon (with pumpkin), gamjajeon (with potato) and maesangijeon (with seaweed). An umbrella and an empty stomach is all you need to enjoy the rain when you’re in Pajeon Alley.

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