Smoke is sucked up into the exhaust pipes left and right as we walk down a narrow alley. Ahjummas, Korean older women, call out their specialties while flipping over sizzling fish and giving us a quick glance before resuming their business. It’s getting cold outside, the heat from the grill and the smell of charcoal are comforting and exciting at the same time.
We don’t remember what made us enter that particular restaurant. Perhaps it was the cosiness of the small place lined with red tables and chairs, neighbouring diners practically breathing down our necks as we deboned the fish and slurped the stew. Or maybe it was the sample fish we were given to try, smoky and moist, promising more of the same.
In fact, offering samples of fish was how the ‘grilled fish street’ began around 40 years ago. According to The Seoul Tourism Organisation, one day a fried food restaurant on this very same street decided to start sampling grilled fish to customers. People loved the free samples, and the restaurant adjusted its focus to serve only grilled fish. Other grilled fish restaurants began popping up, following in its wake.
The owner of the restaurant we picked that day pointed out the former presence of a bus station that took commuters and travellers out of the city. It’s the reason why this street had become a meogja golmog (먹자골목). Much like at many transport hubs, food stalls started springing up around.
Fast forward to today, and the carless alleyways are filled with eateries, more than a dozen of them specialising in grilled fish on Jong-ro 40-gil. If you have trouble finding it, the smell of fish roasted on briquettes will guide you.
Back in the good old days (two centuries ago), briquettes was the only cooking fuel when there was no electricity or gas. These compressed blocks of coal dust burn slower and more consistently compared to the more common lump charcoal used today. It’s not as if there were no gas stoves in Korea in the early 1980s when grilled fish restaurants started opening, but briquette (yeontan연탄) was convenient, cheap, and necessary at a time when deforestation and urbanization had removed sources of wood.
Let’s rephrase that: back in the old days, it was predominantly briquettes that were used in Korea to heat homes, right up until the 1990s when the spread of natural gas and water pipe-based ondol (underfloor heating system) led to a drastic decrease in yeontan use. Many people had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in coal-heated houses.
Yeontan is ideal for slow roasting as it rarely requires refueling. The gentle steady cooking also gives the fish that extra kick, revealing its freshness. While the mud from the briquettes makes the fish deliciously moist.
I knew nothing about the briquette cooking method when I reveled in a simple yet extraordinary meal. I would go back in a heartbeat and I will. But it’s worth noting that when restaurants decide to switch to gas people will mourn the change in taste and also celebrate the area’s decrease in carbon monoxide. Culture is fluid for a reason.
Another thing that has changed is that tourists have caught wind of this bustling alley serving fresh and tenderly grilled fish. During lunch time it is still locals who frequent these restaurants. They are business owners and workers from the nearby Pyeonghwa Market. But come dinner time, the scene becomes more diverse, with visitors flocking in, stumbling across the alley by chance, or walking towards it with a big appetite and great determination, like a bull who finally found his red flag.
The Dakhanmari restaurants at the West end of the alley certainly contributed to this change. The grilled whole chicken dish served in broth has become a food favourite for many Japanese visitors, so much so that a trip to Korea without a Dakhanmari meal will not be a trip to Korea.
But that day we came for the grilled fish, crispy at the first taste, and soft as we worked our way through its texture. The soy sauce and wasabi gave it a punch that was balanced out by the egg roll and mushroom banchan (side dishes). Add to that the piquant kimchi and the tofu stew (not to mention the rice), and you have yourself a hearty meal. So simple and yet so intricate.
The banchan and rice is served with your choice of fish. There are several options from mackerel (godeungeo ) to hairtail (galchi ), and croaker (jogi ), but varieties depend on the restaurant and season. Other dishes such as sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개 tofu stew), naengmyeon ( cold noodles), and bibimbab ( rice mixed with vegetables) can be ordered as well.
This hidden row of restaurants within walking distance of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) and Dongdaemun Station is a treasure trove of food waiting to be discovered. Be sure to visit the grilled fish alley for buttery yet crispy fish that melts in your mouth and a bustling atmosphere.
Area: Dongdaemun, Seoul
Closest subway station: Dongdaemun (line 1 and 4)
Jong-ro 40ga-gil, Jongno 5(o).6(yuk)ga-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul 03197, South Korea
Opening hours: Mon-Sun, 9am – 6pm