South Korea cleans up its snack carts

In South Korea, a new standard of cleanliness has emerged as the government tries to regulate the county's ubiquitous outdoor snack carts.

Ben Hancock
An upgraded snack cart offers fried foods in Seoul.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The discerning street-cart diner in South Korea looks for key signs when picking a safe spot to eat. Spray bottles of soy sauce instead of communal dipping bowls is one; the cook wearing disposable gloves is another.

Now a new standard of cleanliness has emerged: A crop of neat, mustard-yellow carts bearing “Mapo Ward” signs and registration numbers are replacing the hodgepodge of stalls that surround Seoul’s Hongik art school.

Choi Jin-ho, a government worker, says food safety is still a problem.

“But I feel better about eating here than I do in a lot of restaurants,” he says as he finishes up a plate of batter-fried squid at one of the new stands. “Here I can see them cooking right in front of me. They’re not going to serve me with dirty hands.”

Most of Seoul’s street vendors are operating illegally. Rather than regulate them, the government response has been to push them out of sight – especially before major events such as the 2002 World Cup. But crackdowns have been mostly unsuccessful, because resistance is strong and the carts provide a livelihood to so many. They also add an undeniable flavor to this city.

Under Mapo Ward’s scheme, vendors in spots not blocking foot traffic were allowed to stay after trading up their carts. Others were forcibly shut down.

Park Young-mi has run her stand next to a playground across from Hongik for seven years, but became legal just four months ago. Her new cart has a motor – no more pushing – and she doesn’t have to worry if one day she’ll lose her source of income or have to move.

How the rest of the city will handle the snack carts is uncertain. Jongno Ward late last year ordered vendors along a busy stretch of pavement to move into back streets, claiming a victory for pedestrians.

As Seoul gets ready to host the summit of the world’s 20 largest economies in November, it will likely pay even more attention to its image – and perhaps to how it serves its soy sauce.

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