Food From A Confessional: Pojangmacha Street Food

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Tacos, hot dogs, and halal — the food that quickly comes to mind for most people when thinking of street food. Yet, street food consists of so much more, especially in the multicultural melting pot that is Los Angeles. From the streets of East Asia to the South Central underground, LA’s diversity of culinary influences and options is unparalleled.

To try and cover all the street food options that LA has to offer in just one post wouldn’t be realistic. And so, today let’s delve into my personal favorite, Korean pojangmacha food. You’re probably wondering, what’s a pojangmacha? Pojangmachas are the iconic, tented street stalls of Korea that serve just as much as confessionals as they do as local pubs for the everyman. Patrons of all generations frequent these tarp-covered gastropubs for just about any occasion, whether that’s to drink their sorrows away or to celebrate anything worth celebrating.

To get a sense of the sort of food these pojangmachas offer, you have to first understand that pojangmachas (which translates into “covered wagons”) initially began as small carts that offered refuge for the working class from the monotony of everyday work. Accordingly, the food and drink needed to be universally affordable, yet still hearty and comforting. Menus mainly consisted of soju, Korea’s distilled rice liquor, and food that would best accompany this popular beverage, categorically termed, anju.

While I could write at length about the wide variety of foods covered under the umbrella of anju, we’re going to focus on three staple dishes you’ll find in almost every pojangmacha no matter where you go: tteokbokki, gimbap, and sundae. These also happen to be my three favorite anju foods.

Tteokbokki, one of Korea’s most popular dishes, translates to “stir-fried rice cakes.” Though there are various versions of the recipe, the dish fundamentally consists of chewy rice cakes and a medley of added ingredients, including fish cake, boiled eggs, and scallions in an addictive sweet and spicy gochujang-based (chili paste) sauce.

Gimbap is another of Korea’s most popular dishes. At first glance, many express difficulty in differentiating between Korean gimbap rolls and Japanese sushi rolls. However, what separates them is that gimbap doesn’t include any form of raw seafood, and will instead contain a variety of fillings with sausage, bulgogi, ham, imitation crab meat, canned tuna, egg strips, kimchi, spinach, carrot, pickled radish, carrot, and cucumber being the most popular ingredients, all wrapped up in dried seaweed and rice.

Finally, we have Sundae (or Soondae). And no, this sundae has nothing to do with ice cream sundaes. The proper pronunciation is actually “soon-dae.” Also known as the Korean blood sausage, its most common form is made of pig’s intestines, stuffed with cellophane noodles, barley, and pork blood. While a bit more on the exotic side, sundae is just as much of a signature dish as the former two listed above.

Unfortunately, you won’t find any pojangmachas here in the US. However, you will find plenty of Korean restaurants serving pojangmacha food. And so, the next time you think of street food, hopefully what comes to mind isn’t the routine tacos, hot dogs, and halal, but perhaps more interestingly, tteokbokki, gimbap, and sundae.

Feature Image Photo Credit: ROKin’ Around Korea / Jessica Steele
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