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Eclectic dishes help food stalls evolve

Street food is evolving from traditional snacks such as, from left, gimmari (fried seaweed wraps) and odeng to include fusion food from Japan and the West, like sausages. - JoongAng Ilbo

It is June 26 on a side street in downtown Suhyeon-dong, Bundang District, Seongnam, Gyeonggi. Although there is occasional rainfall, 10 of the area’s many street stalls are still open. The stalls that line the narrow alley sell everything from tarot cards and stockings to clothing and accessories for dogs. But the food stalls outnumber the rest.

Park Ha-yeun, a 20-year-old college student from Bundang, was buying a Daegu specialty – flat dumplings – from one of the stalls.

“I came here just to find these dumplings, because they taste better than the ones at restaurants,” Park said.

The alley has stalls that serve red odeng (boiled fish cakes), twisted potatoes (a type of potato chip), waffles, takoyaki (Japanese octopus dumplings), fried squid legs and marinated sausages. The smells from the stalls are tempting and catch the attention of the pedestrians passing by.

With such eclectic and offbeat dishes, street food franchises are evolving. The most popular food in the ’70s was udon noodles. Then in the ’80s, it was hotteok (a pancake with a brown sugar filling) and in the ’90s it was sundae (blood sausage).

“Odeng, tteokbokki [spicy rice cakes], bungeoppang [sweet red bean paste filled bread] and fried foods are still popular, but they have a new taste,” said Seok Tae-mun, head of the Daegu Institute of Industrial Life Research. “Fusion styles are arriving and Westernizing the menu.”

Seok said the street food industry is valued at an estimated 6 trillion won ($5.64 billion). He was speaking at a discussion about the street food industry hosted by Choung Hae-gul, a ruling Grand National Party lawmaker, held at the National Assembly on June 28.

“Street food is cheap and easy to access, which makes it ideal for young people,” Choung said. “In this way, Korean cuisine is contributing to globalization.”

In addition to the mom-and-pop stalls that line the streets in Korean cities, street food franchises are also becoming widespread. Some of the more successful include Food Club, Oliver Tteokbokki, Beomuri (tteokbokki that doesn’t harden) and Yangcheolbuk, (a lamb intestine restaurant).

Since the 2000s, some stalls have begun breaking away from the standard street food fare to experiment with new combinations. Some have even adopted the kimchi and bulgogi (marinated barbeque beef) tacos that originated at Kogi BBQ in the United States.

Kogi BBQ is a food stall on wheels created by a Filipino-American who married into a Korean family. The trucks sell a fusion of Korean and Mexican food in Los Angeles.

But despite the growth of the industry, problems with street food still exist. The main concern is over hygiene in food preparation. The Korea Food and Drug Administration and district governments have been cracking down on street food stalls, but it doesn’t inspect all of them.

Street food franchise Oliver Tteokbokki sells a variety of snacks made with tteok (rice cake) and chicken.

Kim Jun-young, a 32-year-old office worker from Yongdengpo District, Seoul, said he had 22 days of severe diarrhea after eating at a food stall. He thinks the kimbab he bought from an unlicensed stall at a subway station exit caused the problem, however, he is not certain about the cause. Hot weather can exacerbate the problem of food safety.

“With the weather these days, foods stored at room temperature such as kimbab, sandwiches and chicken can cause food poisoning,” said Go Dong-hui, a professor of gastroenterology at Hangang Sacred Heart Hospital.

The risks posed by street food point to a need for stricter regulations, which could make things tough for independent vendors whose earnings might not allow them to invest in the equipment the regulations would require.

One street vendor in Seoul who sells tteokbokki and hot dogs said that he works 15 hours and earns around 60,000 won a day. In the winter, he said he earns about 110,000 won a day.

“But we don’t want to hide, we want to pay taxes and be legitimate businesses,” said the vendor, who identified himself only as Yang. “And as long as customers continue to look for us, I’ll keep on doing it.”

By Park Tae-kyun [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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