Pojang-Macha: Discovering South Korean Comfort Food
Updated: Apr 4
If there were a place to gain an exorbitant amount of weight, Korea would be the destination. Food is spelled with a capital "F" here and by a variety of options. Endless choices line up and down street corners, flashing signs and pictured menus scale the sides of buildings where restaurant workers step in your path as a means to lure you in. The streets are perfumed with the savory smells of grilling meat or bowls of piping hot noodles. Turn the corner and you find vendors roasting chestnuts or flattening pancakes that ooze nuts and honey from the filling.
South Korean Comfort Food
A myriad of restaurants exist inside of Seoul, and belong in all different categories. In front of the traditional restaurants, old men sit outside to drink chilled soju (no matter the temperature outside) and play card games. Then there are the new age spots: artisanal coffee and croiffles; craft beer and bulgogi pizza.
There is a fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants where awards are stickered onto the front door like an assortment of bumper stickers on the back of a luxury car. The walls are decorated with pictures of local celebrities next to a beaming head chef, snapshots that are arguably as compelling as the Michelin rating.
There are places where you can have a healthy dinner of seasonal Korean vegetables and seafood, all served by a hanbok-clad waitstaff, and places where squid tentacles boil in a spicy tteokbokki broth, served with a side of Juicy Cool from an aloof waitress.
Pochang-Macha: Unofficial Drinking Spots
But of all the places, my favorite is not an establishment you can find with Michelin-star merits or with a fusion style menu. Pojang-Machas, or Pochas in short, are the tented food stalls that sprout up in the colder months, just like a winter bloom bursting through the city pavement cracks.
During the colder months, vendors wrap their businesses inside of large red tents. You can walk inside, with plenty of room to stand, sit and spread out at one of the plastic tables. The ceiling is wrapped with hanging lights, all connected by orange extension chords. The heaters at each corner are perfectly warming, plus the grill in the middle feels more like an incubator than a cooking tool.
When walking in from the bitter, dry cold of Seoul, it feels like entering into an oasis within a city made of ice. Inevitably, an old lady runs each joint, while her male counterpart serves soju from a portable cooler.
What to Expect at a Pocha
These establishments aren’t entirely legal, nor do I think they all subscribe to a certain level of food sanitation standard, however this doesn't take away from the charm and appeal of a Pocha.
From the outside, the wide red tent looks like a partially deflated bounce-house on the road but as you get closer you can smell what’s on the grill inside. The inner perimeter is lined with plastic red tables and chairs. Despite its rivalling restaurants brightly lit nearby, there’s usually a line outside of the red tent.
We had our choices presented to us on a pictured menu: roasted squid with spicy dipping sauce, clam soup, fish cakes, pork belly, a variety of sautéed intestines, plus a selection of grilled cartilage.
What to Eat in a South Korean Pocha
My friend and I started with the fish cakes and clam soup, but after a few bottles of soju were emptied, we quickly proceeded to try almost everything else there was to offer. It also helped to have some encouragement from the woman running the show.
The minute we overstayed our allotted time at the table, she told us that in order to get thirty more minutes, we’d have to order more things. Happily, drunkenly, we obliged.
Drinking at a Pocha as a Foreigner
A few questioning looks made there way across the pocha to our corner; a clear outsider inhabited a space where (perhaps) foreigners did not usually go. I will admit, I had a feeling of entering into a space "off-limits." On occasion, some people from the other tables looked over at us before continuing their conversation in a hushed tone. While there’s plenty of foreigners in Seoul, times like this remind me of my foreignness. Regardless of my feeling of comfort or belonging, I will never quite fit in this country.
This left me feeling a little meek and embarrassed, hyper aware of my physical differences. But what can I do? Run home and hide in my room?
My friend and I ignored it, continued our drinking, eating and conversation and ultimately enjoyed ourselves. As the time passed and the people relaxed around us, I began to hear other tables use English words in their conversations.
Night Turns into Morning
We initially sat down around eight at night and had planned to stay until ten, however our night quickly turned into a final walkaway at one in the morning. We stuffed our faces, drank seven bottles of soju, laughed and talked all night, all for less than $80. We paid the woman by personal bank transfer and wrapped ourselves up in layers of clothing made warm by the space heater nearby.
What had started as an awkward experience complete with sidelong glances ended in acceptance. It wasn’t about fitting in completely. I don't have to be a local to appreciate the charm of this little country. Maybe, those who question outsiders do so because of their own fear of criticism. If I am tolerant and accept experiences here as uniquely Korean, I can enjoy them in a slightly different way. Perhaps that's enough.
We stepped out of the tent, which was more like a party stall by that time, and back into the December chill. The volume had since increased inside of the tent, as we could hear cackling laughter and boisterous conversation continuing in the distance as we made our way down the street. We were even a bit surprised with how quickly the time had passed. We lamented about the weekend being over so quickly.
My friend asked, "so next weekend, how about we try Gamja-tang?" Which, just so happened to also turn my foreignness into a comedic snafu. At that place, the waitress would assume my inability to handle spicy food and prepare me a salad made of shredded cabbage, mayonnaise and ketchup. But that's a story for a different time.