March 10, 2013

Tong-in Market Dosirak Cafe: The Ultimate Korean Lunch Box

When I was in elementary school, I refused to anything that the school cafeteria spit out.  I was an extremely picky eater and because of this, my mom had no choice but to prepare a lunch box for me everyday.  I would get so excited to see what she had packed at lunch time: a crust-less turkey sandwich, string cheese, a bunch of grapes, pasta salad.  On a really good day, I'd find a Lunchable waiting for me, along with a note wishing me luck on whatever test I'd be taking that day.  My lunchbox meals were not just food... they were special moments in my day, provided courtesy of my thoughtful mother.

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.

Old-school Korean lunchboxes were kept on top of classroom heaters to keep them warm.

Modern dosirak art.

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.

Tong-in Market, once close to being shut down, is now thriving again.


Participating vendors are marked with these red signs.

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.

Mandu, pajeon, tteokbokki, tofu, peppers, kimchi, and fried goodies made for a delicious dosirak.

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.


Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.


  1. Lunchables - those things were the bomb back in the day. Also that meal looks amazing, I remember a few of those names.

  2. Mike, you are so right! I especially loved the pizza ones but would probably have a hard time eating them now. If/when you come back to Seoul, I'll definitely bring you to this place.

  3. The Hello Kitty lunches are the cutest things! Have you had kids with something that cute in their lunch?

    1. Colleen,
      Although not AS impressive, I have seen some students with some pretty artsy lunches. The kids usually in the cafeteria, they pack their own lunches on special days (like field trips and picnics) and the moms get pretty competitive.

  4. hi seoul-searcher, may i ask if the last picture shows a plastic lunchbox next to a solid "porcelain" bowl with rice. it'd be really nice to know b/c i need this for a thesis.

  5. Hi Marissa,
    Actually, the bowl was plastic as well. Unlike the lunchbox, however, it was not disposable. Hope this helps!

  6. hi mimsie,
    thx for the information!

  7. My mom told me the story of how they use to warm up their lunchboxes in korea during the winter when she was in high school. I saw this market on TV but never knew where it was, definitely checking this place out! thanks mimsie~~

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