CONTRIBUTED BY SIBO LUNG
You’ve made the move to Korea, you’ve unpacked, and your kitchen is now in somewhat of a functional state. Chances are your first stop to buy some groceries was at the on-base commissary since it is conveniently located. However, after some days or weeks of strolling through your new surroundings, it becomes evident that there are many other places to shop off-base. Like me, you may have found yourself staring helplessly at new brands, Google-translating new foods and ingredient lists, and lastly, simply weighing your new shopping options.
So what are your options?
First stop: On-base commissary
The commissary is the one place we can get many familiar western foods that used to be in our kitchens back home. Additionally, they carry fresh produce and meat that comes all the way from the United States too.
Unfortunately, after its long journey across the Pacific Ocean, the produce isn’t always in the best shape. And understandably, the prices tend to be hiked up to make up for transporting it all here. I find that the more delicate items like tomatoes and most fruits are consistently cheaper and fresher off-base.
Because I almost never eat meat, I cannot vouch for taste, but the fresh meat does look normal and familiar. The butcher section and packaging is similar to what you would have back stateside and there are usually sales on certain meats and cuts. The one expensive meat that is only sold frozen and I have yet to see on sale is ground turkey.
Everything else in the store is pretty standard for a grocery store. You have your drinks (non-alcoholic only), non-perishables, frozen foods, dairy foods and breads. Regular prices and sale items make it so I spend more or less about as much as I did stateside.
Overall, my biggest shopping for staple western non-perishables comes from the commissary and I am grateful to have it available.
Stop #2: Traditional markets
The markets! How I love the markets! We are very lucky in that there are several markets in the surrounding area. The 4-9 market is right in Songtan, Tongbok market is in Pyeongtaek, Osan City has a large market, and Seojeong-ri has a market. So pretty much within a 10-minute travel radius, you can visit a market every single day! And this is the reason I stopped stocking up on fruit from the commissary. In my daily commute to work I can easily pick up the freshest produce.
The produce at the markets is seasonal so finding strawberries in November won’t happen. I like this though because I am assured that the produce is fresh. The peaches in late summer were large, sweet and juicy. And the apples in fall are so sweet and crunchy. Fresh off the tree!
Pricewise, the market is a better deal because you can bargain with the vendors. The more you buy, the less you pay. “ka ka juseyo!” This is a very important Korean bargaining phrase when asking for a discount from the vendors. The ajummas are so amused to hear those words coming out of a foreigner’s mouth, they can’t help but give you a discount!
The traditional markets do have meat as well, and I have heard that it is fresh and tasty. Some beef and pork is chilled in refrigerators, while some hangs in in the open air. In the hot Korean summers, this can make one a little apprehensive. I would say the best way to buy meat at a market is to get a recommendation from a local of which vendor to buy from, and then go with them if possible. I would say the same for the seafood. There is always a great selection of seafood (on ice) and the prices are much cheaper than the commissary.
Local Grocery stores: Emart and Home Plus
If you were a Target lover back home, then you will feel very much at home in these big stores. They are large and carry typical big store items like fresh food, household goods, clothes, sporting goods, lots of wine, etc. The Emart in Jije even has a Payless Shoes inside!
A trip to Emart may go like this: You tell your spouse you are going to “pop in for a couple of things” but as soon as you walk in, time doesn’t exist to you. You walk in, grab your large cart, and stroll around for over an hour through aisles you had no intention of going through when you had the “pop in” idea. It’s even worse in Korea where the brands are all new, and the staff offer you food samples at each corner. So now your belly is full and you are surrounded by intriguing new things. This is Emart. I dare you to try going in there for less than an hour! Furthermore, there is a food court with menu options that trump COSTCO and IKEA. Yummy bowl of bibimbap anyone?
The prices at Emart and Homeplus are reasonable. If I could not go to the commissary, this is where I would do most of my shopping because they are generally cheaper than the smaller local grocery stores and there is more variety. Their prices on western foods like pasta sauce is still high, but they carry some reasonably priced staples we all eat like rice, ramen, and potatoes.
With a little exploration and creativity one can learn the local brands for other foods and start buying those instead. These large stores also have sales on meats, produce, and other foodstuffs, therefore it is similar to the commissary in that you can always find most of what you need and make some savings too.
And for the winos: Yes, they do have wine if you cannot make it to the Base Exchange on-post. Korean rice wine is tasty, but Mr. Merlot, I do miss you sometimes!
Worth mentioning is that there is a COSTCO in Cheonan (about 30 mins from Osan AB). The travelling distance and mostly US prices may not be worth the trip for some. Cheese would be the only thing I would go for over there. However, the travel time and the few groceries I buy for my two-person household just isn’t worth the trip and the muscle pain I would have after hauling it back to Songtan.
Shopping on-base is convenient and familiar, but venturing outside the gate can yield some great savings and new discoveries. A friend of mine is a very good cook and is always giving me Korean recipes to try at home so I now have to stop at the local stores to find my ingredients and hope they turn out both delicious and Pinterest-worthy.