Grocery shopping is everyone’s favorite chore. Some of us wake up early on the weekend or go after work to try to beat the insufferable crowds. The crowds full of screaming children (maybe yours), people leaving their carts in the middle of the aisle or ramming them into you, the chaos and madness of wandering down aisle after aisle for a few necessities. Most of the time, you leave with 10 things you didn’t need or with one bag costing you $100. Fear not, friend grocery shopping in Korea is no different.
Let me guide grocery shopping in Korea from places to shop to pricing and availability of goods and produce.
In Korea, you have about six different grocery store options; if you live in a major city for those living on islands, in rural communities, or in small towns like me, the store selection becomes slimmer and harder to get to.
Fruit and Vegetable Stalls
The smallest, both physically and option-wise, is a fruit and vegetable stand. You may find these in your local park with ajamas 아자마 squatting by today’s harvest, or it could be a truck driving slowly around the streets of your town announcing its great deals from a loudspeaker and if your lucky, you may find one squeezed between larger shops as you walk down the road. These vendors tend to be cash-only, but you bet you get some of the freshest in-season produce available in town.
To be honest, I wish I shopped at these more often, but it’s hard to get out of the convenience mindset that groceries stores in the US have trained me to enjoy the ability to find everything you need at one store is hard to beat.
Next up on our grocery tour is convinces stores like GS25 and CU. Much like the rest of Asia, your local conveniences store has a small area of fresh produce like bananas, corn, and steamed sweet potatoes alongside pre-made food that’s great for a quick bite. However, I can’t forget the large variety of ramen that’s there for your choosing. In fact, it is common to see people in the morning or right after school or work downing a diet bowl of quick ramen at a convince store. Although this option does not have a lot of options to choose from, I have several friends who live on islands that mostly shop here for snacks and meals when they are tired of what their school is cooking for dinner. This is the only option for some without a 15-30 minute bike ride to the local NH mart.
Family Ran Markets
Usually, finding a family ran market fills me with excitement. In the United States, they have unique goods, freshly baked bread, or specific to the family’s cultural heritage like Polish, Italian, and Middle Eastern, but not in Korea. Although there are a few international or Asian Markets to be found by in large, these markets are a cross between a convenience store and a small grocery store. Most of these markets are large beer and soju stores with a small selection of produce (meat if your lucky) and tons of processed soups with a small selection of necessities like dish soap and toilet paper.
Although I’m a huge fan of shopping local and find these markets great for alcohol or a quick stop for something you need, I tend to avoid them. These markets tend to be extremely expensive for the least options and often lower the quality of produce. Now I will pay more to buy locally, but grocery shopping in Korea is costly to begin with, so every penny counts.
Smaller Chain Markets
Your smaller chain markets include Y-mart, M-mart, and NH Mart (Nonghyup 농협). All three of these have larger produce sections, dairy sections, seafood, and meat counters. Though still not as large as a selection that many westerners would be used to back home. My local Market is NH Mart. NH is actually the farmers union, so not only is it my local market but also my bank. NH produce and meat variety are highly seasonal. In the kinds of winter, I may find potatoes, onions, three or four different vegetables, and three or four types of fruit. When it’s harvest season in the fall, this all changes.
Most days, the shelves that are typically bare or half-empty are filled with lettuces, figs, persimmons, countless veggies, and fruits. When it comes to your meats, seafood, and frozen section, your selection is minimal all year round. Once in a while, they may get a different cut in or a new frozen item, but it’s random. To give you a better idea of slim my local NH has 3 freezers of meats and fish and 3 counters that are deli-style that are usually 1/4 full if that. Then, there are really only 6 freezers with 3-4 different things in each for frozen food. Not much compared to the typical 3 isles I’m used to back home. The rest of the store has a small selection of processed food, fresh baked goods, and other household items. Price-wise I find NH to be more expensive. Even during harvest season, I spend $1-5 dollars more for the same product at NH than I do at a megastore.
I love Traditional Markets. Something about the chaos, fresh food, and way of life makes traditional markets so unique. In Korea, these markets can be small, only selling one or two kinds of things by many vendors like Octopus Ally does in Muan-meon 30 min north of me, or they can focus on one type of product like furniture or seafood. Still, my favorite traditional markets have everything food, meats, fresh rice cake, banchan, clothing, furniture, and household goods. In these markets, you can choose to purchase from the cheapest vendor or whose products look the freshest. You can spend hours eating street food while picking up all the groceries you need at once. Nothing beats a traditional market when it comes to enjoying your errands.
E-mart, HomePlus, and Lotte Mart are the three largest mega stores in South Korea. They are usually only in mid-size to larger cities. I have about a 20-30min bus ride and a 15 min walk to get to mine (yes, I look like an old lady with my cart riding the bus). I definitely frequent these stores the most because, just like a Super Walmart or Meijers in the US, you can get everything you need from them. Typically, they are the cheapest grocery store options with the most variety in products and brands in Korea. They have an ok international section which has told me they think Americans eat Mayonnaise and Ketchup on everything. They are usually multi-level with groceries on one level than home products, clothing, furniture, and electronics (including fridges, air conditioners, cellphones, etc.) You can genuinely get everything you need at one place, which is why I frequent them every week in the winter and every other week in the summer since I can get lettuce and other fresh food at my local NH.
Having an idea of the different options to purchase groceries, I will address the elephant in the room with its variety of produce and cost.
Prices and Food Varieties
When I was looking at moving to Korea, one of the things that lured me was the cost of food. I am here to tell you that people telling you it’s cheap to eat in Korea are lying to you.
To be fair, if you eat out every meal eating soups, ramen, street food, Bimbibap 비빔밥, and Gimbap 김밥 will be able to eat pretty cheaply. That diet may be great for a tourist or a college student, but eventually, you’re going to crave something more. Maybe something like sushi, barbecue (Korean and western), western food, or even a traditional full-service Korean meal will sound delicious. What will surprise you looking at these restaurant menus is the prices start around $20 and go up from there. These dishes and prices are not meant for one person. Korean restaurants cater to 2 or more people. Even ordering a piece of cake at a coffee shop, you will receive two forks from eating it with. Korea is cheap; when you’re eating with friends, you split these meals that cost $30-70, and you can’t even finish your plates, but if you are solo like me, it’s not cheap at all.
So your only option is to grocery shop, and that can be more expensive than eating the cheaper Korean food, but you have no other choice if you have a restricted diet or prefer to live a healthier lifestyle. Korean dishes outside of kimchi lacks fruit and vegetables.
So how much do groceries cost in Korea?
My grocery bill is the same, maybe even a bit more than what I was paying in the United States, $400-600 per month. The price discrepancy is partually due to the rise in produce prices in when most things are out of season in th winter and spring months. Fall is the cheapest time of year to go grocery shopping. Also, keep in mind I have food allergies and shop a lot of gluten-free products online (iHerb) which can get pricy.
There are a few reasons why grocery shopping in Korea is so expensive. One reason is that Korea is about 70-80% un-inhabitable. Meaning there is not enough land for the expanding population to live on, let enough land to farm on to feed the people. Lack of land has increased the need for imported food, and imported food costs more. Now you may get around imported fresh foods and meats in the summer but come winter months, this becomes impossible. Korea gets real cold and snowy. Another reason grocerys can be so expensive is Koreans shop in bulk. I’m not sure why this is, but a lot of times, from fuits to laundry detergent to mega size shampoo and conditioner every thing is what we would considder bulk size in the US and if they even offer the smaller size its usually barely cheaper that its not worth it. Speaking of bulk youll often see that a lot of fruits come in crates that start at $20 (USDA). Then getting fruit in smaller quantities you are limited to getting 3 apples for $7 (USDA) or two bunches of grapes for $10(USDA) which still pricy.
As you can see, fresh produce adds up quickly. Foods like Italian noodles, canned food, wines, beers, frozen food, meats (especially beef and non-frozen chicken), and really anything that’s not made in Korea or part of traditional Korean food culture are also costly. Be prepared to be shocked at your first grocery bill when you shop in Korea.
To give you a better idea of pricing, here is my haul from my local NH. keep in mind it is the cheapest season of the year (fall/november) when I made these purchuses.
You can compare that shopping trip and cost to the one I did at E-mart. Keep in mind my bus ride to E-mart adds about $3 USDA to my journey.
Also If you look closely at the reciept you may notice two items missing so although I paied $135,210KRW I really should have paied near $150,000KRW. Look I’ll take free stuff especialy when grocery bills add up fast here in South Korea especialy on a Native English Teachers salary.
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