Pojangmacha… Demystified!

Since I was talking about EATING SANNAKJI AT HYEHWA, thought I’ll just share this. It’s an old blog post on pojangmacha that I’d posted on one of my old blogs previously.

If you watch K-dramas, you would probably have noticed how the Koreans seem to like hanging out at those outdoor drinking tents to have some soju. Sometimes, it’s one lone man or woman drowning her sorrows in soju, and sometimes, it’s where the couple pour their hearts out, or where besties confide in each other, or one bestie will console the other. Guess you could even say pojangmacha is like a life theatre where people play out or recount their own dramas.

I remember being extremely curious about these drinking tents, wondering about the food they would eat and those steaming bowls of soup too. Haha, I reckon I ain’t the only one curious about it, ya? So today, I shall give you the skinny on these outdoor drinking tents.

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Pojangmacha | The Basics

First things first, these outdoor drinking tents are called Pojang-Macha (포장마차), which translates literally into ‘covered wagons’. If you read Chinese, it translates literally to 布帐马车, which means wagons covered with tents, keke! (some people also romanize it as Pochang-Macha)

Technically speaking, pojangmacha refers to small tented eateries on wheels, or street stalls which sell a variety of popular street foods as such hotteok, kimbap, tteokbokki, sundae, odeng and others.

These pojangmacha can be divided into two main kinds: one for snacks during the daytime and the other for drinking during the night. The night version usually serves soju (though many actually serve beer and makgeolli too these days), and they also have a variety of anju.

Anju are dishes that go well with alcoholic drinks, and are what the Chinese refer to as 下酒菜. The night version of pojangmacha typically starts popping up alongside the roads from around 7pm or so, and they usually operate till around 2-4am in the morning, although there are some that are open practically all night too. And oh, the night version of pojangmacha are sometimes called soju tents too.

pcmc-2THE ORIGINS

The pojangmacha history is actually not very long in Korea, having only sprung up after Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945. In the earlier days, they were just simple roadside stalls selling mainly food on the go as they served the busy workers near where people worked or lived. they were without chairs back then, and customers would just stand there to eat. Then later, the more improvising stall-owners started adding stools for customers to sit around their wagons.

And by the 1970s, pojangmachas started to flourish as that was also the time when Korea first started to experience economic development. Back then, the very patriotic and passionate Koreans tended to put their country and companies first, putting in long, hard hours. So the pojangmacha became more than just where they would grab a quick bite.

The pojangmacha became a place for coworkers to go and wind down after a long day’s work.
In order to cater to the increased business and also because the customers started to stay longer to eat and drink, the stall-owners started to add tables too. In the colder winter months, they even put up the (mostly orange and blue, and don’t ask me why…) tentage to keep out the cold.

Pojangmacha of Today

Today (as of 2012), there are approximately 3,100 pojangmacha in Seoul. As expected, this number has been on the decline as the Seoul city progresses. City officials tend to see pojangmachas as eyesores in the development of the city, and perceive them as illegal and unsanitary, and yes, they have sought to shut them down.

However, there are also people who belong to the school that want to preserve this little part of history. The tourists, too, are fascinated by the pojangmacha culture and seem to think of it as a colourful part of Seoul. Many foreigners see pojangmachas as something really local and while it’s intimidating for those checking it out for the first time, they are excited too, as though having been allowed a glimpse of the real Seoulite’s life.

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There’s also a quiet ‘revolution’ going on these days. Some enterprising people have brought the pojangmacha idea indoors and there are even chains! Personally, I can’t say I’m for the idea of ‘modernisation’ of this form. Anyway, you can read more HERE

sojuDrinking Etiquette

1. One unique point about the drinking culture in Korea is that the Koreans do not refill alcohol into a cup until it’s completely empty. Yup, in Korea, you should only refill someone’s glass when there’s not even a single drop left.

2. When someone is pouring you liquor, it is polite to hold the cup. If the person serving you is older, you should hold the cup with two hands when you receive the liquor. Likewise, if you are serving alcohol to someone older than you, you should use two hands when pouring. When dining amongst friends, one hand may be used.

3. When you are drinking with those whom are older than you, it is best to turn your head away when drinking.

Bonus Tips!

1. It’s cash only at pojangmachas as they do not take credit cards.

2. Try to visit the bathroom before going to the pojangmacha, since they don’t have bathrooms. However, if you really need to go, just ask the owner of the pojangmacha to direct you to the nearest public bathroom.

3. Prices vary at each pojangmacha. While the booze is relatively cheap, the food is actually not cheap, and can sometimes be at similar prices as in restaurants, costing around 8,000-12,000 won. Indicative prices: 1 bottle of soju: 2,500 to won, stir-fried chicken gizzards: 8,000 won stir-fried boneless chicken feet : 8,000 won, noodle soup: 4,000 won.

RECOMMENDED READS
MORE ON POJANGMACHA, INCLUDING ITS HISTORY
A TENT IN THE SKY
CNN’s GUIDE TO POJANGMACHA
BLOGGER POLKADOTYYANN’s POJANGMACHA OUTING

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