Grocery shopping isn’t something most people find entertaining or even very interesting. But when you’re thrown into a foreign country with foreign foods, prices, and language, suddenly it becomes a lot more time-consuming and interesting!
Although we live in a village called Gyeseong, we don’t have a grocery store. There’s a 7-11 and a GS25, both small convenience stores, but that’s about it. So on Monday nights our boss, Richard, drives us into Changnyeong so we can do proper grocery shopping.
Changyeong has it’s own mini supermarkets and convenience stores, but the three main stores in town are Jin-Mart, I-Mart, and Topmart. We hardly ever go to Jin-Mart (I don’t know why Richard won’t drive us there).
I-Mart offers great deals on bread, while Topmart has good prices on frozen chicken breasts, so we normally rotate between the two every other week.
The biggest surprise I had when shopping was the price of the food–everything was so much more expensive than I was used to! I think it’s because Korea is a peninsula and very mountainous–most of it’s farmland is used for rice, garlic, onion, and cabbage. Many other foods, especially fresh fruit, must be imported.
I’ve gotta say, though, my eyes bulged when I saw that a small carton of strawberries would cost me 8 USD.
It’s been almost 10 months, though, so I’ve adjusted to the price. I buy a few vegetables every week and one type of fruit, usually one on sale. A lot of the produce is seasonal, so we get strawberries in the spring, nectarines in November/December, and grapefruit in August. Apples, lemons, and oranges are pretty regular, thankfully.
Beef is very expensive in Korea, so we normally buy chicken and pork. Most grocery stores have aquariums of live fish, eel, and octopus ready for sale, but I have no idea how to prepare those dishes, so we just cruise right past that aisle.
Soy, teriyaki, and sukiyaki sauce all comes in large containers, and we regularly buy it along with pounds and pounds of rice. Ramen is practically considered a food group in East Asia, and many stores have an entire aisle dedicated to the flavors, spices, and types of Ramen they sell.
We don’t know what half of the store’s goods are, nor do we know how to cook with it. So our diet is pretty limited to the stuff we can recognize. Thankfully, gmarket is basically Korea’s version of Amazon, and it delivers real cheddar cheese (as well as other non-perishable goods). iHerb, also, is a California company that ship organic and all-natural non-perishables overseas, so we make an order from them once a month.
Also once a month we visit Daegu’s eMart, a much larger department store that carries all the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seasonings we could want. They have a great foreign foods section, which doesn’t have much American, but it does have a little Mexican, Thai, and Italian. Between eMart, gmarket, and iHerb, we’re able to fill in most of the gaps that our small town grocery store doesn’t provide for.
At checkout we buy our monthly allotment of garbage bags (pink bags by local law) and pack our groceries in our shopping bag we bring or a cardboard box the store allows us to take.
Shopping in Korea was definitely an adjustment process–even greater than the adjustment I made when in South America. But after 10 months we’ve made our peace with the missing things in our diet (don’t get me started on how much I miss American Chinese food, Chik Fil A, or Sonic though) and had filled the gaps as best we can. It’s a good chance to assimilate into the local culture, and while we haven’t done it perfectly, we’ve certainly tried!