Food Shopping in Korea
SUPERMARKETS can be found in all neighborhoods. Almost every department or discount store has a supermarket on the basement level. However, as their target market is the Korean community, you can’t expect to find your favorites from home, even in the Western chains. However, most supermarkets carry a number of imported products. Some supermarkets, especially in the Youngsan area, target the Western expat community, but bear in mind that their prices are a bit higher than other (Korean) supermarkets. Prices are usually better in the growing number of international markets/stores that cater to other Asian communities (Thai, Indian, Chinese, etc.)
FREE DELIVERY is available from most supermarkets and even medium-sized local neighbourhood grocery stores (not convenience stores however) for orders exceeding W30,000. Deliveries are usually made within about one-two hours of the delivery request and will be made until around 7-8PM (depends on the store). To request the service: 배달해주세요 + your address and telephone number.
LOYALTY POINTS are also available from most supermarkets and medium-sized local grocery stores. Go to customer service and give your name, telephone number (or last 4 digits) and address to receive your points card. The points are generally 1% of the total spent and can be redeamed once a certain amount has been reached in a variety of ways including applying them to a purchase, gifts, etc. Find out more here.
PRODUCE is protected in Korea and some imports are limited and frequently quite expensive, as are homegrown but relatively new fruits and vegetables. The traditional fresh markets have the lowest prices, usually.
Broccoli, for example, is grown in Korea and not imported. However, the price reflects the fact that it is not a traditional cooking ingredient here. It’s generally sold in small quantities (cut sections) on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic wrap in most supermarkets, although you can buy it whole in fresh markets at much lower prices.
Potatoes and carrots especially are often sold unwashed showing that they are ‘fresh’.
Rice is also more expensive in Korea, than elsewhere, including the local varieties.
Organic produce is the current rage in health-conscious Korea and can be pretty expensive. There are four categories, ranging from farms that are planning to go organic to true organic products where no chemicals, etc. are used. At the moment, the majority of organic products in Korea fall into the first and second categories. Interestingly, most look perfect – no holes from insects, etc.
IMPORTED PRODUCTS can be found in most supermarkets and fresh markets. A legal import will usually have a Korean label placed on the packaging, usually over the directions or contents. You can find products for North American expats in a number of specialty shops, but the prices can be higher than what people may be used to in their home countries. Imports from European and South American countries are becoming increasingly available and will probably be even more so as more Free Trade Agreements are implemented.
WESTERN-INFLUENCED SNACKS, as well as canned and baked goods have been incorporated into the modern Korean lifestyle. They are, however, often much sweeter than many expats are used to. Hotel bakery/deli goods more closely approximate the flavors of home and many hotels offer up to 50% off the regular price of their breads 60-90 minutes or so before they close.(Contact the hotel to find out their policy).
In the bigger cities, there is an increasingly number of western-style bakeries that bake the bread you know from home. The cost, however, can be higher than other bakeries. Note that brands you know from home may not, in fact, be the same.
BAKING PRODUCTS are available in Korean supermarkets, however some are very different from what you may have used back home. If you don’t wish to shop in the black markets, you may want to check out the bakery supply outlets or again, the warehouse stores. These days, foreign supermarkets carry more and more baking products such as dry yeast, baking powder, vanilla, different kinds of flour, cooking chocolate, etc. In Seoul, there is also Bangsan Market (see “Specialty Markets Seoul”) where you can find all kind of baking supplies, products and decorating items. Finally, experimentation helps as does swapping ideas with other expats (click on the Activities tab in the menu above and go to Meeting People/Networking to see how/where to meet other people).
MARKETS, often referred to as traditional markets, used to be outdoor markets made up of independent vendors. The latter still holds true, but most stores are now indoors with some cart vendors still operating outside. If you’re a bargain hunter, the large traditional markets are the place for you. You can expect all of the markets to be crowded –early morning when they first open is the best time to go if you don’t like crowds – people here seem to start shopping from noon on. In summer, it’s hot in the markets; in winter, it’s cold. If you require a clean, spacious, comfortable environment when shopping, you may want to steer clear of the markets. Being bumped and pushed is part of the market shopping experience since many have very narrow aisles. Not all vendors speak English, although the number of those who do, at least a little, is growing. Some may give discounts, while others have fixed prices – however a price sticker does not mean that you can’t negotiate (note that Korean merchants don’t really enjoy the haggling process). There are definitely ‘foreigner’ prices in most markets – these are higher than the price quoted to Korean shoppers. Some vendors also prefer to sell ‘wholesale’ or in bulk and are reluctant to sell retail or in small quantities. However, when business is slow, the wholesalers may be more flexible.
K4E Editor: Korea4Expats want to provide the most complete and accurate information possible, so if you notice any errors or omissions in the content above please let us know at email@example.com.
Last Updated on 2015-04-13
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