Tong-in Market Dosirak Cafe: $5 Korean Lunchbox

I love visiting markets. Each time I take a trip down to the market reminds me of my younger days. I would follow my mom to traditional markets every Sunday morning. I did mention in my Noryangjin Fish Market  post about how visiting a local market can gain you insights about one society, its people and their ways of life.

Tongin Market Lunchbox

What they sell and what their daily staple consist of, what people eat in different seasons, and how some of the vendors would suggest their customers dinner menu for the day as they purchase their grocery away are truly inspiring. These trivial events never fail to entertain the 7-year-old me back then.

Tongin Market Lunchbox

Tongin Market Lunchbox

Tongin Market Lunchbox

The markets in Korea certainly has its unique character and personality. Especially for this particular one, the Tong-in Market (통인시장) — a 73 years old market established during the Japanese occupation period at Seocheon (서촌), aka the Gyeongbok Palace area. The old-school wordings on the meat stall, the typical red neon lights… are all full of nostalgia.

Tongin Market Lunchbox

The market was first established as a marketplace for Japanese residence in 1941. The situation changed after the Korean war, stalls were taken up by Korean vendors. However, business wasn’t great until their Community Center introduced the Dosirak (도시락) “Cafe”, the business began to revive. To date, Tong-in Market has over 70 stores, with most of them in the lunchbox/food business.

Tongin Market

The Dosirak (도시락) “Cafe”, is a kind of a semi-DIY lunchbox packing activity, where people pay cash in exchange of traditional coins, then use the traditional coins to purchase food available in the stores. Basically, you’ll be given an empty tray when you exchange your traditional coins, and just walk down the alley to load up your tray. Somehow the business concept reminds me of economical rice at home. Or shall we call it an interactive chap cai bng? Anyway, sounds fun, isn’t it?

Tongin Market Lunchbox cafe

So this is how we start our Dosirak picking journey. After going through the entrance to the market, walk straight down until you see the community centre (above picture) at your right, in the middle of the market. Go straight up to the 2nd floor, where you’ll find people busy eating their dosirak. Try to locate the cashier room, where you can purchase the coins and the empty tray, then come back down to the street to start your food hunting adventure!

Tongin Market Lunchbox cafe

Some little rules and regulations before we start:

1) With KRW 5000 You’ll be given 10 coins. Food price varies from one to two coins downstairs at the market. Check the price with the vendors.

2) Not all of the vendors on the street are in the dosirak project. Look out for stores with the signage “通 도시락 cafe” only. However, you can use cash to purchase any food you like, even if the vendors are not included in the project. Likewise, if you run out of the token coins, you can still purchase the food with cash.

3) After purchasing the food, you can go back to the community centre to enjoy your meal. Do note that the vendors downstairs do not sell rice, but you can purchase rice from the community centre. If you really need to have rice, remember to save up 2 coins, or pay KRW 1000 for them.

Tongin Market Lunchbox cafe

Got my empty lunchbox tray and here we go!

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The traditional coins, or you can call it yeopjeon.

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You can choose from a variety of food available from the usual banchan (Korean traditional side dishes), salads, different kinds of kimchi, to the rare dishes like ddeok galbi (grilled beef patty stuffed with rice cakes), or bulgogi. If you’re wondering what to order, here’s the list of popular food people are ordering:

– Ddeok galbi (Grilled beef patty stuffed with rice cakes)

– Mandoo (Steamed meat dumplings)

– Gaeran-mari (Tamago/ rolled omelette)

– Japchae (Stirfry glass noodle)

-bulgogi (grill marinated beef)

– Kimchi Dwaeji galbi jjim (Stirfry Kimchi pork)

– Gi-reum deokbokki (oil fry rice cake)

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How a typical dosirak vendor stall look like. Isn’t it very similar to our economical rice???? Talking about that I start to miss those mornings at Maxwell market. Anyway, food here are prepared fresh daily and menus varies depending on what’s available in the season.

Picture taken from Korean Blogger Prettymom201 on her Daum Blog.

Picture taken from Korean Blogger Prettymom201 on her Daum Blog.

This is the signboard I was talking about that you should look out. Stores with this signage accept your coins.

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One extremely popular dish among Koreans is this stir fry rice cake (Gireum deokbokki 기름 떡볶이). The rice cakes is stir fried with some chilli powder and brown sugar mixture, one of the more special rice cake dish in Korea I would say, as you don’t get it elsewhere except in Tong-in Market.

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Our lunch box of the day after spending the 10 coins! For your information, me and my friend did not set aside 2 coins for the rice and soup as I was cutting down carbs intake and she just don’t feel like having rice. But let me mind you, KRW 5000 worth of side dishes is VERY filling as well. I could hardly move after stuffing everything down my throat.

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As for the stir-fry rice cakes, it is more like a been-there-done-that kind of dish since it is known to be the speciality in Tong-in Market. The texture of the rice cake is chewier and since it is a stir fry dish, it is more to the greasy side. Best eaten hot. Other than that, not much else to brag about the rice cakes.

tongin market

My Verdict: From a traveller’s point of view, it is a unique experience to dine at Dosirak cafe as you get to purchase your meal directly at a traditional market. I have been there twice and so far everything I picked taste nice. Since the dishes are prepared fresh daily, it is a healthier alternative if you are looking for a lighter diet. To be honest, to get a balanced diet in KRW 5000 while not having the quantity compromised, I think it is an excellent find especially around the Gyeongbok Palace area. If you are travelling on a budget or would like a yummy palette loaded with homemade goodies, this is a wise choice.

Contact Details:

Tong-in Market Dosirak Cafe
Seoul Jongro-gu Tongin-dong 10-3
Korean version of the address: 서울 종로구 통인동 10-3번지

Operating Time:

Monday-Saturday, 11am-5pm. Coins exchange until 430pm.

How to Get There:

how to get to dosirak cafe
1. Take the subway to Gyeongbok Palace Station (Line 3) and exit through Exit No.2
2. Walk straight for about 10 minutes. You’ll need to cross one major street to reach the destination.
3. After crossing that street, continue to walk straight and take note of a covered entrance to Tong-in Market at your left hand side.
4. Get into the market and continue to walk down the only alley of the market and you’ll find the community centre somewhere in the middle of the alley.

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