Back To Top

[Weekender] Mystery snack sellers on clogged highways explained

In the middle of a traffic jam on a highway, snack vendors holding bags of puffed rice snacks weave through vehicles that stand bumper to bumper.

This scene is familiar to many in South Korea with the experience of being stuck on a congested highway on weekends or major holidays.

“When I was younger, it took some 10 hours to go to Mokpo where my grandparents live during the holidays. We were stuck on the clogged road for hours, moving at the speed of tortoises,” said Lee Jin-hee, a 35-year-old office worker. 

Rice puffs piled in Youngcheon Traditional Market (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
Rice puffs piled in Youngcheon Traditional Market (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)

“The Bbeongtuigi (puffed rice snack) sellers would walk around on the middle of the highway, and I would nag at my parents to buy me snacks. This scene would be repeated every year on holidays and it became my childhood memory.”

Although not as often as in the past, these puffed rice snack sellers still pop up on jammed roads or highways, prompting many to wonder: Why do they always sell puffed rice snacks and where do these people come from?

A wholesaler explained to The Korea Herald that it is because such snacks are cheap and easy to bring around due to their light weight. The traditional snack also recalls the nostalgia of old days.

“We can say that puffed rice snacks are the oldest snack in Korea from the time when there was no manufactured snacks,” Choi Jeong-hwan, who has been selling various types of puffed rice snacks in Seoul’s Kyungdong traditional market for 20 years.

Depending on their ingredients, the puffed rice snacks vary in shape and taste, and are puffed without oil under high temperature and pressure. They can be viewed as the Korean version of the Western popcorn.

“These puffed rice snacks were the only snacks when we were poor. All you needed were grains such as rice, corn and brown rice.” 

Rice puffs piled in Youngcheon Traditional Market (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
Rice puffs piled in Youngcheon Traditional Market (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)

The 39-year-old Choi said steamed corn -- which are also snacks of the old days -- are sold alongside puffed rice snacks.

“Back in the days, when I was young, these Bbeongtuigi sellers would come to outdoor markets and children would all gather around to watch him pop grains,” 53-year-old Kim Young-mi said. “The machine would make a loud ‘bang’ sound. In my childhood memory, it was not only a joy to eat the snacks but also to watch the event.”

The owner of a truck vendor that moves around towns to sell puffed rice snacks explained how these sellers appear on the expressways and roads.

“I have the popping machine in my vehicle, so I make the snacks myself. But often people buy the products from wholesale stores, gather part-timers and drop them off on roads where there is traffic jam,” said the 72-year-old retailer, who only revealed his surname Kim.

Daily earnings vary for those selling the puffed rice snacks on expressways, as it depends very much on the ability of the seller and the time of year, he added.

As for Kim, he said he makes a profit of half of his average earnings of 100,000 won ($87) to 150,000 a day on village streets.

The wholesale price of a bag of 10 round puffed rice snacks is 1,000 won and individual sellers sell them for double or triple the costs, he explained.

“We rarely spot the snack trucks and individual sellers on express highways and roads,” said police officer Kim Sang-jin, the chief of the highway patrol team in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. “The police teams nationwide are always on patrol to watch out for dangerous situations.”

The law bans pedestrians from entering the highways, he said, adding that those violating the law are subject to fines of over 300,000 won.

“There is no law needed to ban selling on the highways, because it is illegal to enter the roads in the first place. Our utmost concern is safety.”

As for this year’s Chuseok holidays, which falls on Oct. 4, Kim said traffic congestion would not be so serious, due to the duration of the holidays.

This year, the government has designated Oct. 2 as a one-off holiday to bridge the Sept. 30 weekend with the Chuseok holidays (Oct. 3-5), National Foundation Day (Oct. 6) and Hangeul Day, which commemorates the invention of the Korean alphabet that falls on Oct. 9.

By Jo He-rim (