Lunchboxes, or dosirak (도시락) are just as celebrated in Korean culture. In the old days, children were sent off to school with hot meals of rice, protein, and kimchi packed into a metal tin box. The boxes were kept on stove top heaters so they would stay warm until lunch time. Nowadays, lunchboxes are more modern and often contain separate containers for different foods. Some very dedicated mothers (with nothing better to do) have turned the dosirak into an artform, making kimbap resemble flowers and turning rice balls into adorable animals. As cute as some of their creations are, lunchbox art is definitely more of a hobby than the norm.
Over the past few decades, many women have entered the workforce. Schools have begun to prepare cheap lunches for students. Workers head out to fast food joints during their lunch breaks. Because of this, the dosirak, as many Koreans know it, seems to be disappearing. Although traditional style lunchboxes aren't as common as they once were, there are still a few places that serve up dosirak for those nostalgic folks wanting a taste of their childhood.
One of these places is Tong-in Market, a traditional market that not too long ago was on the brink of extinction. Although the market, like many of its kind in Korea, had continuously been losing business due to the influx of supermarkets, it was recently revived by the instillation of Doshirak Cafe.
Intrigued by the concept of a lunchbox restaurant, I headed out to Tong-in Market located just next to Gyeongbokgung Palace. The cafe, to my surprise, was quite spacious but packed with hungry Koreans. After paying 5,000 won ($5USD), I was given a string of coins that were to be used at the vendors in the market marked with the Doshirak sign. I received a tray and headed downstairs to get my grub on.
Everything looked fantastic and it was difficult to figure out what to order first. I wandered up and down the main strip of the market to see what was for sale. Older women and men worked over grills, flipping, roasting, tossing, and stirring. The aromas lured me from stall to stall, which offered up everything from grilled fish and beef to spicy looking vegetables to fried things I couldn't easily identify. Although the foods were all priced differently, nothing cost more than 3 coins (1,500won) and most items were 1 coin (500won). I loaded up my tray with some of my favorite dishes as well as some I had never tried before and headed back to the cafe, where I ordered soup and rice for 2 coins each.
The cafe's indoor seating is limited, but there's a nice patio with lots of picnic tables. It was covered at the time I visited, providing enough warmth to eat there in cold weather, but I imagine it's especially nice in warmer months. It was obvious that everyone was enjoying their meals, caught up in their own childhood lunchbox memories.
Everything that I had ordered was fantastic and although I tried hard to eat it all, I was completely stuffed and simply couldn't. There aren't many places where you can eat well and get full for less than 5 bucks, which makes Dosirak Cafe an excellent find for those on a budget. In addition, visiting Tong-in Market is a truly unique dining experience and is a wonderful way to sample some of Korea's best market foods.
More Information: Tongin Market
Hours: Open Monday- Saturday 11a.m. to 4p.m. Closed on Sundays.
Address: Seoul Jongro-gu Tongin-dong 10-3 서울 종로구 통인동 10-3번지
To Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3). From Exit 2, walk straight for about 10 minutes. You will see a covered entrance to Tong-in Market on the left. After going through the entrance, walk straight for a few minutes through the market. You will see an exit on your right. Take the stairs up to the second floor to find the cafe.