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.
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.
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…
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:
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).
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,