By: Holly DeMuth
Technically, I’m a pescetarian, a designation so rarely referenced in print that my spell check doesn’t even recognize the word. This means that I eat vegetarian, except that I also eat seafood. Eggs, dairy, etc. are fine. Meat that doesn’t come out of the ocean is not. My reasons for this are boring and not relevant here, so I’ll skip to the useful bits.
When I first decided to teach English in Seoul, South Korea, I did my research. I decided on the International TEFL Academy’s online TEFL course to get my certification, extensively researched many aspects of what my life would be like in the city, and set off on my big life adventure. I confess, however, that I neglected my due diligence in my research when it came to diet. I ate at Korean restaurants fairly often in my hometown of Chicago, and I just figured I wouldn’t have a problem. Turns out, the food situation was a bit more challenging for me than I expected. Language barriers made it difficult for me to navigate ordering food at the Korean restaurants in my neighborhood, none of which had English-language menus. As for cooking at home, my limited cooking skills do not include Korean-style food preparation, which meant that a lot of what was on offer at my local Korean grocery store wasn’t useful to me (since I had no idea how to cook it). The sheer expense of purchasing fresh produce in Korea was also problematic. Fresh vegetables, and especially fruit, are very pricey in most Korean grocery stores - especially on a teacher’s salary.
What follows is a quick overview of how I negotiated the difficulties of buying healthy groceries with my food restrictions in Seoul. Most of the options referenced here will be available in other major cities, but you may have more difficulty in rural areas. Even if you don’t have my food restrictions, you might still find it challenging to eat healthy here. All of this will hopefully be useful information for anyone looking to maintain healthy eating habits while teaching in South Korea.
I organize Korean food stores into four basic groups. You have your convenience stores (think 7 Elevens), which I won’t get into here because there’s not much in the way of healthy food at most them. Next, you've got your basic, local Korean grocery stores. You’ll (hopefully) have at least one located very close to where you live. Stores like this will have produce and Korean groceries, but typically no “Western-style” or foreign products. You’ve also got the big giant stores - Emart, Homeplus, and Costco. Finally, you have open air markets and tiny fruit and vegetable stalls or storefronts - these places usually sell produce exclusively, typically in baskets on the ground with prices per basket handwritten on cardboard signs. They’re often (but not always!) cash only.
I quickly learned not to purchase my fresh fruit and vegetables at the regular grocery store. From what I’ve seen, the bigger the grocery store, the pricier the produce will be. Instead, you want to buy from the tiny, hole-in-the-wall fruit vendors, usually selling from open-air storefronts or outdoor stands. I was very lucky to have two such storefronts near me - one that was more veggie-focused and one that exclusively sold fruit. These places were a godsend. A basket of tangerines that would go for 6 to 8 thousand won (about 6 to 8 USD) was 3 bucks at my local fruit stand (the word “bucks” will henceforth serve as a stand-in for the words “thousand won.” 1,000 won is worth a little less than a dollar, making it pretty easy to convert in your head). These places cut my produce bill in half.
When you’re buying produce (especially fruit) in Korea, know your fruit seasons! They differ somewhat from the seasons in America. A major difference: strawberries are a winter thing in Korea. The peak time to buy strawberries is from around December through March, depending a little on who you ask. The strawberries are obviously grown inside, but they are fantastic. At around 6 bucks for an estimated quarter-pound basket of strawberries, they’re still a bit of a splurge, but worth it on occasion. I’ve also fallen in love with Korean pears (so much different than American pears! So much better!). While I’ve read that they are an autumn item, I find them to be good and fairly affordable year-round.
Of course, even a vegetarian needs more than just fruits and vegetables to survive. This is where the larger stores come in. Emart and Homeplus are two similar large, multipurpose chains found in Korea. Basically, imagine Target on steroids and you have some idea. Both have full grocery stores in addition to large cafeterias, home goods sections, electronics sections, clothing sections, you name it. Both also have a decent (but different) selection of foreign goods. In general, I found Homeplus to have a better selection for my needs, and better prices. Homeplus sells canned garbanzo beans, a product I have not found anywhere else. The Homeplus near me also tends to have good deals on fresh fish, and it sells cheap, individually wrapped nigiri pieces for less than 50 cents (490 won) a pop! Both stores have a decent selection of bread, various western cooking products, nuts, cereal, peanut butter (pricey) and oatmeal (same). Both stores have some cheese, but even semi-decent cheese will cost your left hand and your firstborn child. Also, both stores have a reasonably plentiful wine selection! I find that Homeplus tends to have better deals in that area, too.
This brings us to Costco. Yes, they have Costco in Korea. Yes, your foreign Costco card will work here. I didn’t have one when I got here, and I opted not to buy one, but I do make a monthly Costco pilgrimage with my Costo card-carrying coworker. I go for two crucial things: hummus, which the Costco near me sells in a two pound tub for ten bucks, and feta cheese, which they sell in a decently sized tub for an incredible 8 bucks. I haven’t found the prices at Costco on other items to be worth it for me personally, but I’m not a big bulk buyer. I would suggest hopping over and taking a look around before committing to buying a membership.
This leaves us with nonspecific, relatively easy-to-find basics like eggs, milk, and yogurt. For these, I rely on my local Korean grocery store. I find the prices and convenience to be better than the larger chains, and since they all sell the same brands, it makes sense to buy from the smaller shops.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it’s a decent summary of my experiences grocery shopping in Seoul. To my fellow grocery shopaholics, health food fanatics, and those with food restrictions, godspeed and good luck out there! May you find almonds for under ten bucks.
Holly is a 32 year old nomad. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2008 with a BA in Justice Studies before moving to Chicago, where she spent several years building experience working for some of the city’s most popular restaurants and volunteering at various local nonprofits. She is currently teaching English in Seoul, South Korea.