Tips ‘n’ Tricks: Grocery Shopping in Korea

There’s a wrinkly old man, plopped on some blankets on the ground, casually skinning an eel. Some ajummas bundled up in puffy winter coats, squatting to separate wrinkly, earthen roots into those ubiquitous maroon-coloured bowls. A stand, sheltered by parachute-like tarp serving a variety of fried snacks drowning in that inescapable, gojuchang-laced “red sauce.” Just another day at the market in Korea…

There’s quite a variety of ways to get your grocery goods covered in this country. From traditional markets and street stalls to western-style grocers and department-store supermarkets, shopping experiences run the gauntlet from authentic and old-school to, well, Walmart. In my seven months here I’ve found the best plan of attack is a combination of all of the above.

I’d argue that most foreigners living in Korea are out to save a buck, wanting to get an authentic Korean experience, yet still have access to familiar foods from home. So without further ado, I present you: my haphazard guide on how to do just that.

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1. Shop Outdoor Markets whenever Possible

When I first set out on foot for food in Korea, I headed straight to HomePlus (one of Korea’s conglomerate giants) and made the mistake of purchasing their produce, thinking to myself about $2 CAD was a bit steep for an apple—especially in a region known for its orchard picks. Que the local markets and street stands (found on almost any busy pedestrian corner) where fruits can be found for less than a dollar a pop, and veggies come without pretentiousness or a good wash.

That’s about $20 CAD for a watermelon there, folks.

Sure, it might mean you have to give your veggies an extra rinse or two, but I’ve found most of the prices to be half of their supermarket counterparts. Plus you often get to interact with the people farming your food, and of course your produce is much more likely to come from nearby. Win-win-win.

Carry cash, be prepared to deal with some pungent smells, and go with at least some working knowledge of Korean (ie. “How much is this?” 이거 얼마예요? / Igeo Eolmayeyo?) and a sense of adventure. In Daegu, Seomun Market is incredibly big and a bit overwhelming, but should have whatever you could possibly be looking for. If you live in Chilgok, there’s an all-day Wednesday market in Area 3 too. I can’t remember the dong (neighbourhood) but I’ll update when I do…

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2. Scope out your region’s immigrant hub for more foreign/exotic foods

We all know Seoul’s got Itaewon, but what about the rest of Korea? I paid about $6 CAD for a small tub of tumeric at HomePlus back in the fall—if only I’d tracked down BukBu Bus Terminal (북부정류장) before!

For Daegu folk, the BukBu Bus Terminal area (the north bus terminal, not Dongdaegu) is where many immigrant labourers have come to settle and open up shop—on my trip there I spotted Indian and Chinese restaurants, but even better was the array of exotic goodies otherwise absent in Korea—Cilantro! Dates!! Tempeh!!! And legumes galore. I was a giddy little schoolgirl after discovering this gem. Daegu Green Living did a pretty good write-up on it a while back. Here’s a link to the below Map:

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If iHerb didn’t exist I’d probably be camping out here on the weekends, which brings me to my next point…

3. The Internet is a beautiful gift from God. USE IT.

Between iHerb (no, I don’t secretly work for them, although I might as well…), Gmarket, and High Street Market, you really can have it all, abroad. iHerb‘s got you covered for any and all supplements and health goodies, grains and legumes at crazy-good prices, ships to Korea for $4 and comes in just 4 business days. It’s a dream, really, and most waygookins here herb about as hard as I. Well maybe not quite as hard, but they get it. Anyways. Gmarket is Korea’s answer to eBay, and they stock plenty of things you won’t find elsewhere in Korea, and the English version works pretty well! I’ve bought everything from castor oil to clothes, and things come incredibly fast. High Street Market is a bit pricier, but stocks some pretty awesome goodies (thai peanut veggie burgers, store-ground almond butter, vegan/gf lasagna, plus they stock and sell Alien’s Day Out cakes/breads/cookies).

IMG_4064 Bought a nice sack of these thinking they were gojis… that was a spicy mistake!

4. Costco, HomePlus, Emart

The big-box stores of Korea. All three stock a decent number of Western-style goods for prices comparable to those at home, and though I don’t know Emart well, HomePlus-uhh stocks a pretty decent selection of organic and non-pesticide products (there’s some great guides to Korean organic and non-pesticide labeling here and here). Costco memberships cost about $30 CAD. I got a foot-high barrel of organic brown rice there for about 15,000 won and rumor has it they also stock bacon, cheese, frozen pizza, and those chocolate chip muffins just like your home branch. Avoid at all costs on the weekends. I don’t want to play the stereotype game, but damn, the way those Koreans drive their grocery carts…

I fail at the whole Korean key-yoot thing… sorry dudes.

5. Scope out your local organic store (they exist!)

I’m lucky to live in the hagwon (private academy) capital of pretty much all of Korea, so there are plenty of pampered children in my hood—which means plenty of protective parents who want only the best organic food for their precious children. Which is fine by me, ’cause I’m reaping those benefits. Chilgok, my area of Daegu, has an iCoop (the first few times I had no problems, though now they won’t let me shop without buying a membership), an all-organic shop with fresh-baked breads, organic ice cream, and a big hormone-free meat section if that’s your thing. Unfortunately my branch’s produce selection is usually pretty disappointing, but there’s another one just up the street, “The Farmer’s Marketplace” (map/write-up here). There’s a comprehensive list of green and “green-ish” shopping spots in the Daegu area here, as for Busan, Vegan Urbanite should have you covered, and of course Alien’s Day Out is holding it down in Seoul.

So there’s my non-comprehensive list of how to work with groceries abroad. Other than these five things I suggest, researching, experimenting, and reading some English-language Korean cooking blogs (or watch The Kimchi Chronicles) to learn more about those strange, grimy-looking ingredients you’re surrounded by. If you’ve got another tip or trick, or something I’ve missed, please please suggest it in the comments, for my benefit and for other readers! Ideally I’d like this page to serve as something helpful to newcomers to Korea (especially Chilgok and Daegu) who were as lost as I was at first when I came to Korea in terms of grocery shopping.. so let’s work together to make this thing a little more extensive, shall we?

Peace, love, ‘n’ kimchi,

Kass

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5 Ways to Keep Healthy in Korea

It’s a fine balance, living abroad.

You moved away for an experience. You want to envelop yourself in everything foreign, immerse yourself in the new, the strange, the otherworldly. You want to feel it all, try everything once.

But that gets a little old after awhile. When you realize this isn’t a month-long backpacker’s jaunt—when you haven’t seen a vegetable in a week, when chicken-in-a-cup and ramen noodles become your daily staples—sure enough “living abroad” really means just that, you are living your life (in my case for a year) and suddenly the whole idea of balance becomes much more apparent.

Not eating every last meal out at some traditional Korean restaurant won’t mean missing out on the overseas experience. I prepare my own breakfasts and most lunches, but am more relaxed about dinners and the weekends, a fine balance indeed. We are here to save money, yes, but eating out rarely costs more than $5 CAD and the cost of groceries here is comparable to that of at home (except at the markets, but more on that later). These days, I feel much more like mysel… but that could just be cutting back on the soju, too.

Anyways, here’s how I’ve been keeping healthy while still working my way through the edible culture:

1. The Obvious: Kimchi

The infamous Korean side dish, the ubiquitous vegetable that I’m grateful to have served at each and every meal. Fermented spicy cabbage (or, occasionally, radish) keeps those good bacteria going, helps you digest the rest of your meal, and *knock on wood* has kept me from getting sick all year (except for the time I drank the tap water, but that’s a pin-pointable aside..). Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it doesn’t matter the deal. Just always eat your kimchi with every meal!

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2. Kale.

It is the blog’s namesake, after all. I couldn’t track down my cruciferous veggie of choice for the first month or two here, but now I feel silly—how could I not spot this friendly green giant in the organics section at HomePlus?! It is quite imposing. It’s a little more swiss-chard like here, sadly no curly or black varieties to be found, but alas, kale is here and I will find ways to sneak it into every juice, packed lunch, and snack. Hurrah for Korean kale!

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3. Bibimbap

Bibimbap is essentially a colourful chopped salad served atop a bed of rice with red pepper paste (gojuchang), so no complaints here. Well, a little more preferential treatment for brown rice would be ideal, but fermented greens and other veg goodies soften that blow.

Our favorite dosirak (boxed lunch, similar to Japanese bento) spot, Hansot serves up a good ol’ bibimbap (I usually get mine with tuna) for under $3 CAD, and I swap in brown rice for an extra buck. Ready in five minutes no less, picture below. See why I’ve been avoiding my tiny, ice-cold kitchen? 
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If you feel like gettin’ wild, you can also order dolsot bibimbap—it comes served in a traditional stone pot, piping, no, scalding hot, with a generous splash of oil at the bottom so the rice crisps up and makes the whole thing sizzle. We frequent the “Healthy Food Place” (the logo as picture on the bowl below, they’re pretty easy to find in Korea) for the best ever roasted or raw vegetable bibimbap and dolsot bibimbap. Plus they come with seaweed soup, more dried seaweed to make your own mini-kimbap rolls as you eat, and plum tea (yum!) for dessert. Kimchi too, but that’s a given. Yum!

bibimbap4. Shabu Shabu!

Whenever I say Shabu Shabu (which is probably more frequently than I like to admit), I always yelp it in a high-pitched, triumphant voice—one of our kindergartens went for dinner the night before coming to school and evidently enjoyed his meal—all day we heard his cries of “sha-boo SHA-BOOOO!” And this place lives us to the hype. Five-year-olds, they sure have educated palates these days..

Shabu shabu is Chinese hot-pot (although our favorite spot seems more Vietnamese-influenced) where you order up a plate of lean meat or seafood and throw it into a boiling vat of broth at your table, alongside your choice of greens, herbs, and sprouts. While the meat cooks, you assemble your own rice paper wraps with loads of fresh, colourful vegetables (cabbage, sprouts, leafy greens, even kale!), add meat as desired, and of course, the best part, dip in a choice of three incredibly tangy, spicy, and fresh sauces. Your own customizable salad rolls, fresh as they come. And that’s not all! After you finish the meat, you’re served buckwheat noodles and green onions to cook in the remainder of the broth. And once you’ve finished that round (can you believe this resourcefulness!), a bowl of rice, kabocha squash, and other veggies to simmer down into a risotto. Heaven, really. It’s a little more expensive than most restaurants around here, but at about $11 CAD it’s reasonable for a three-course meal.
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Another favourite, not pictured here, is cold soba or buckwheat noodles topped with loads of veggies and spicy sesame sauce. We usually find this at Japanese restaurants (like this one). Korean bbq isn’t too bad either, as you can wrap your meat in loads of sesame or lettuce leaves, and often one of the sides (I think it’s usually paired with duck) is a crazy-good sesame chive kimchi. Aeri’s kitchen has a recipe and some photos!

5. When all else fails, there’s always iHerb.

Hey, remember that time I moved to Korea and said I wouldn’t order anything from iHerb? You know, I wanted to live authentically and fully immerse myself in the experience?! Ha. Ha… ha.

Well I can fully say I’ve getting the experience in Korean, hell you don’t have a choice here sometimes. There’ll always be the goods and bads of living abroad, but one of those firm and true goods is getting a package in the mail once or twice a month from your friendly, inexpensive friends, iHerb. And thank god for that. (p.s., if you are a first-timer to iHerb, use my code QRS549 at the checkout—you’ll save $5 to $10!)

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So there you have it, my surefire tips to staying alive while living in Korea. In addition to these things, I take a Greens supplement, I juice a few times a week, and I go to the local gym (even when it’s colder inside that outside) and hot yoga studio (so lucky there’s one in my town) 5 or 6 days a week. And I must say, I feel a world of difference since when I first got here. But perhaps I’m missing something? Or you’ve another suggestion from living out of your element? I’d love any suggestions… we’re always open to trying new things. That’s why we’re living abroad, after all 🙂

easy korean kimbap triangles tutorial

The first food I ate in Korea was kimbap.

It was long after midnight and the only thing open near our hotel was a 7-11. We hadn’t eaten since the plane ride hours ago, and I was desperately in need of something to munch. (Have I mentioned the dude’s new nickname for me is “Snacks”? I think it’s well-deserved..)

Enter my golden little triangle.

 These little rice triangles are quick and even cute to eat, the store-bought versions with 1-2-3 easy unwrap instructions, and fillings like spicy kimchi or creamy tuna, all wrapped up in a ball of rice. Think of them as the Korean equivalent of a quick-grab pizza slice… minus the gluten and dairy. For the first week in Korea, I subsided mostly on kimbap triangles… at least until I found kimbap rolls, and started eating those for breakfast. And lunch. Ah, my Korean comfort food.

Unfortunately neither white rice nor purchasing food at convenience stores really appeals to me, so it was off to my midget-sized kitchen for a lesson in assembly failure and, subsequently, patience!

But finally, success…. And now I’m considering renaming this blog Kimbap and Kass. What do you think?

Kimbap Triangles (vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free)

Ingredients: (You’ll have to guesstimate—if you want exact amounts, check out this tutorial)

Seaweed (nori) sheets

Cooked brown rice

Vinegar (preferably sushi vinegar)

Salt

Sesame seeds

Filling(s) of your choice (I used avocado)

Directions:

1. In a bowl, mix ~1 cup of cooked rice with 1 tbsp of vinegar, 1 tsp of salt, 2 tbsp of sesame seeds, and the filling of your choice. I used half a cubed avocado, but other common fillings would be tuna and avocado, kimchi or other pickled vegetables, or beef. Set bowl aside.

2. Slice a nori sheet in half lengthwise. Try and actually do it in the middle. (Durr)

3. Take half of the rice mixture from your bowl and, with your hands, form it into the shape of a triangle, flattening the top and bottom. Place at the top of one of the nori sheet halves and press down to make sure all the sides are flat.

4. Fold the bottom half of the nori sheet up and over the rice mixture. It should come just to the top of the rice, if not, shorten the nori sheet as needed. Press the sides of the nori sheet against the rice mixture until it sticks. A little water can help the nori sheets stick together.

5. Flip the triangle over and tuck the sides of the nori sheets on top of the rice like you’re wrapping a present. No scotch tape, please. Now do the same for the other side. Press the triangle together, making sure it is secure. Again, moisture really helps the seaweed stick.

And voila! You have a kimbap triangle! These would go great with some tofu soup or seaweed salad to make a meal. Or you can saran wrap them and carry as snacks, they transport surprisingly well. Apparently you can also buy kits to wrap them in the same cutesy way the convenience stores do, but this works just fine for me.

I’d love to see what you put in your kimbap, so please post on Facebook or Twitter if you try these out! Your packed-lunch-rut will thank you.

Oh! And to my friends at home, happy Canadian Thanksgiving! Hope you enjoy lots of candied sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie and pumpkin spice lattes and … I’ll stop now. Yum.