Rice, Pulses and Other Cereal Grains
Rice is the staple of the Korean diet and this market has plenty of it in stock. However, most of Jeju’s soil structure and water table isn’t suited to traditional methods of rice cultivation. Instead, ogokbap (mixed grain rice) was, and to some extent, still is the common form of carbohydrates for the average meal. The mixture of steamed short grain rice, beans, barley, and millet packs far more of a nutritional punch than the traditional white rice, and in my opinion, tastier to boot.
Aside from seafood and pork, chicken is one of the most important animal proteins in the Korean diet. At the O-Il Jang, you can get ‘em dead or alive, in the shell, or as a chick to raise on your own.
These small, perch-like fish thrive in the waters of Jeju-do. They’re a mite bland and frustratingly bony, but most importantly for the local cuisine, they’re a cheap and abundant source of animal protein. You'll most commonly see them filleted into thin slivers and eaten raw in a spicy, cold soup called mul hae.
Also known as "hairtail fish," this is one of the more commercially important fish that can be caught around Jeju-do, with the majority of the take exported to mainland Korea and beyond. As such, the price of this fish has increased steadily over the years to the point where it’s no longer affordable for many locals. A shame, because its firm flesh, subtle fishiness and easily removed bones make for fine eating.
Known as godeungeo, this is another important staple protein of the Korean table. You’ll often find it braised with radishes and a spicy broth as godeungeo jorim, but simply broiled and sprinkled with salt, it’s opulent, juicy, and ridiculously good (and good for you!).
The waters of Jeju-do teem with wildlife and the fish market of the O-Il Jang proudly display ultra fresh product, much of it caught the previous evening. In addition to mackerel and hairtail, eel, squid, monkfish, abalone, crab, and tilefish have much commercial and culinary importance.
Korean Chili Peppers
The Korean chili pepper embodies the heart, soul and fire of Korean cooking. Fermented along with salt and rice powder, it forms the base for countless Korean dishes as gochujang. Gochugaru dried and crushed chili peppers are used as the primary flavoring in kimchi as well as other soups and stews.
They take well to Jeju-do’s pebbly, volcanic soil. It serves as an affordable and important food source, used in everything from soups, savory pancakes, stir fries and porridge.
Lettuce and Other Leafy Greens
Though commonplace in the Korean meal, these greens aren’t destined for salads. Instead they’re used as filler, perhaps chopped and mixed into bibimbap or as flavoring to soups and stews, such as the herbaceous leaves of kkaennip (wild sesame) and fragrant ssukgat (edible chrysanthemum). Of course, the tender blades of oak leaf lettuce are best enjoyed wrapped around a sizzling morsel of grilled pork belly or marinated beef short rib.
Before the introduction of Western confectionaries, pastries and ice cream, fruit served as the most common form of dessert in the Korean meal. At the O-Il Jang, you’ll find juicy locally grown gamgyul (tangerines), fragrant and sweet pok-soong-ah (white peach) and tremendous boksubak (watermelon) as well as imported dragon fruit and mangoes.
Kimchi, or fermented vegetables, is essential to the Korean diet, where it’s consumed in various forms for every single meal of the day. And this being a Korean market, there are of course the principal ingredients to make a considerable variety of the stuff. There’s baechu for the ubiquitous napa cabbage kimchi, as well as oi (cucumber), buchu (chives), moo (radish) and my personal favorite, chonggak (baby radish) kimchi.
Of course the everyday cook can’t always make everything from scratch. All of that fermentation, braising and reducing takes time, patience, and serious technical chops. That’s why there’s plenty of prepared foods for sale: kimchi, fermented bean paste, tofu, muk (buckwheat, mung bean or acorn jelly), and even ready-to-eat jokbal (boiled pigs feet).
The markets not only sell food and snacks, but dry goods and house ware as well. You could buy new bath towels, bootlegged CDs, knock-off purses, baby clothes, or a serious assortment of kitchen tools, cutlery and even onggi, giant clay pots used to ferment kimchi and doenjang (fermented bean paste).
Halmeoni Jang Tuh (Grandmother’s Market)
The O-Il Jang in Jeju city has traditionally set aside a special area for halmeoni, or grandmothers to hawk their wares. Historically, the women of the island did much of the manual labor including farming and even diving for shellfish, such as the legendary haenyeo. And with the fruits of their labor, they also rule the food markets as well. But don’t let the term "grandmother" fool you—these old birds drive a hard bargain.
All great wet markets should have a snack stall or two to feed not only the shoppers but the shopkeepers as well, and the markets in Korea are no different. Most of the food you’ll find here is of a somewhat low-rent, grab-and-go variety, and all of it is ridiculously inexpensive. This includes sweet rice cakes, boiled corn, freshly fried pancakes both sweet and savory, doughnuts, riffs on hot dogs and grilled meats on a stick. One item that I sorely missed this time around as it’s traditionally eaten only during colder months, was bungeoppang, crispy doughy pastries shaped like a fish, and filled with a sweet red bean paste.