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- October 04, 2016
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Adjusting to Korean Life - Grocery Shopping and Cooking at Home
Grocery shopping in another country can be challenging. Acclimating yourself to reading new food labels, knowing what products are common and readily available, and how products are priced can all cause stress. In addition you have to figure out where to shop and what options are available to you. Luckily, in Korea, a variety of options exist for buying your groceries.
Many people still shop at local markets where you can find produce, meats, fish, as well as Korean side dishes (반찬). Other places include local marts, supermarkets (HomePlus, Lotte Mart, and EMart), and even department stores (Hyundai, Lotte, Shinsegae). There are also many online shopping portals that offer food and will deliver right to your door. Even convenience stores carry a small variety of grocery items.
So, what’s unique about grocery shopping in Korea?
Produce: Many vegetables are easy to find and prices are generally inexpensive (with some exceptions). Fruit prices can vary but beware of fruit in fancy packaging selling for premium prices as these are normally used as gifts for special occasions or holidays. If you’d like, support small business owners by visiting fresh fruit & vegetable stands or outdoor markets. You can normally haggle for prices and prices may be cheaper than your local supermarket.
Meat: Generally expensive, especially beef since a lot is imported from Australia or the USA. Local Korean beef is called Hanu (한우) and is also expensive.
Seafood: Many supermarkets and traditional markets sell a variety of frozen, dried, and fresh seafood. There are also some famous seafood markets such as Noryangjin in Seoul and Jagalchi Market in Busan.
Spices and Herbs: Certain spices and herbs can be difficult to find in Korea or are very expensive if you can find them. On the other hand, locally used spices, herbs, and sauces such as gochujang and doenjang have many varieties and are inexpensive.
Grains: You can buy very large quantities of rice at supermarkets and even some smaller marts. Although for wheat products like bread - department store bakeries, supermarkets, and Korean chain bakeries (e.g. Paris Baguette, Tour Les Jour) are better than smaller marts since they may not carry that wide of a selection of bread products. Note that Korean breads tend to be sweeter than similar western bread products. Department store bakeries will often have western style breads but at a premium price.
Cereals: Dry cereals and oatmeals are usually available in marts but may be lacking in variety. Supermarkets carry more varieties but it is usually nothing compared to a grocery store in the USA.
Tips and Tricks
Here is a tip about shopping for food in department stores. At the end of the business day the food areas of department stores will have sales on food they need to sell by the end of the day.
If you have some Korean language skills, some local marts and the larger supermarket chains will deliver to your home (a minimum spend may be required). Larger supermarket chains also offer online shopping but their websites may only be in Korean.
Unless you own a car, grocery shopping can be challenging as you have to carry everything you buy back to your home on public transport (Taxi, Bus, Subway, etc), walking, or biking. While some stores will provide plastic bags for free, others charge a small fee per bag. Some store’s bags can be reused as general trash bags, check the bag to see if it is district-specific. That being said, it is best to bring bags with you, they can be any reusable bag (plastic, canvas, etc). If you shop at a supermarket like EMart, they often provide boxes, tape, and scissors to package your purchases after checking out. At Korean Traditional Markets, it is also advised to bring your own bags to carry your purchases if you are going to purchase large amounts.
Finding international ingredients?
If you are having trouble finding certain international ingredients, there are international grocery stores and markets that sell a variety of goods. Within Seoul, these are mostly located around the Itaewon area. You may also try your luck at the American warehouse store called Costco (Membership Required) which has locations scattered around Korea. Be aware that some imported products may carry high prices.
International Grocery Markets
High Street Market
223 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.
Korean: (주) 하이스트릿, 서울 용산구 이태원로 223 2층.
Foreign Food Mart
36 Usadan-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Korean: (주) 코리아트레드앤드써비스, 서울 용산구 우사단로 36.
Costco [Any Costco membership card can be used worldwide. If you want to purchase membership in Korea it is currently ~KRW 40,000 per year]
Various locations around Korea.
Cooking at Home
In regards to kitchen space - Unless you live in a large apartment, villa, or free-standing house, kitchen space is generally limited. Counter space for food preparation is generally not very large. Cabinet and pantry space may be limited as well but at discount or online shops, other shelving and storage can supplement what is in your kitchen.
While almost all kitchens will come with a gas or electric stovetop, this may be your only cooking appliance. Stovetops are generally not very large and will often only have two burners. Full size ovens are not as common. Compact counter-top ovens are common for kitchens with limited space. A microwave may or may not be included in your kitchen. You can also find combination appliances that can function as a microwave, small oven, and steamer. Washing dishes by hand is more common than having a dishwashing machine. For one-room studio apartments and other smaller housing options, the refrigerator may not be very large (as shown above). Large apartments may have a fairly large refrigerator and even separate refrigerators for kimchi. Ice makers are rare and are most common in restaurants and cafes, not in homes. Many Koreans still believe having a water purifier or bottled water is a necessity even though tap water is safe to drink. Many people still cook with bottled water or filtered water.
While many people do make their own Korean side dishes, there are options to buy them rather than make them on your own. There are many different stores and small shops where you can buy kimchi and other side dishes. Even convenience stores will sell individual servings of kimchi in small packets. Traditional markets will normally have banchan stalls as well. As stated earlier, department stores will also run sales close to closing time and these often include ready-to-eat side dishes and other food items.
Do you have more questions about grocery shopping or cooking in Korea? Contact the G.O.A.’L Community Mentor today!