i've been in korea nearly 7 months now!
now that i have been here this long, i have figured out how to get almost all of the foods that i want here in korea. this entry is going to be about grocery shopping and specifically about getting western/non-korean grocery items in korea. i hope this will be useful for other expats in korea or other people thinking about moving here.
proviso: for practical reasons, i'm basing this mostly on the foods i like to buy, which are mostly mexican foods.
size matters (but not as much as homeplus)
first off, a crucial factor in determining what will be available in a given area in korea is going to depend on how big the city is. this is somewhat obvious, but the difference between a small town and a moderately sized city can be quite drastic. for example, i know a few people who live in very small towns of less than 10,000 or less than 5,000 people. they cannot even buy any kind of cheese in their town including the "plastic cheese" singles which are the most common kind of "cheese" in korea. in my city, donghae, there are about 100,000 people. we have an emart, but not a homeplus. homeplus is better because it is owned by tesco so they have a lot of tesco brand things and, in general, more western goods. there are cities smaller than donghae that have homepluses, and i think the expats there are better off.
what can i get in emart (or elsewhere in donghae)?
peanut butter...check. you can get this at several stores in donghae apart from emart and it's not that expensive compared to prices i've seen for it in europe. for comparison, i only ever saw one variety of peanut butter for sale in russia and it was $10 for a normal-sized jar. here it is usually around $6. more expensive than back home but that is kind of a given when it's a speciality item that the locals don't normally eat. we made pb&j's with the kindergarteners at my school one day and they all hated it.
spaghetti sauce & pasta...check. not only are there plenty of western brands available but also some korean brands. i've learned to steer clear of the korean brands of spaghetti sauce because even though they are cheaper, they're just not the same. too sweet. emart also has some other types of pasta sauces like alfredo and a kind of creamy vodka sauce. one thing that you cannot get anywhere in donghae is whole wheat/whole grain anything, including pasta. there is definitely no shortage of pasta or any kind of noodles, though.
tortillas...CHECK! THANK GOD! i am so happy that emart sells tortillas that i can just buy whenever i want. they are frozen and ~$5.50 for ten, but it's so worth it. if you know me, you know that back home i ate mexican food literally everyday, and sometimes more than once a day. i thought i would have to give all that up once i got to korea, but thankfully it turned out not to be true. i love mexican food. granted they only sell flour and not corn tortillas. homeplus has different kinds of tortillas. non-frozen ones and hard-shell tacos.
avocados...check! this is a somewhat rare grocery item in korea and is quite a bit more expensive than back home, but i actually can't live without avocados, so i'm willing to shell it out. i have honestly only seen avocados for sale at emart and the foreigner supermarkets in itaewon in seoul. at emart they come in 2-packs for 6,400 won (about $6). one thing that is annoying about emart is that almost all the produce is sold in huge packages so you have to buy more than you want and pay more too. also, worth noting about avocados, i have had to develop a special technique for ripening them. i take an avocado and put it under a blanket with my electric tea kettle. i just need to turn on the kettle a few times a day and it keeps the avocado nice and toasty so it can ripen. the first one i tried to ripen never got ripe because i just left it out on the counter for a week and a half... nothing happened because it is too cold in my apartment! the tea kettle methods bears results in two or three days.
tomatoes...check. okay tomatoes aren't really rare, but in donghae it is hard to get the kind i want. with my mexican food, i like to have the standard "beefsteak" type of tomatoes. a lot of stores only have cherry tomatoes and when they do have the big ones, they tend to sell them in huge cases (emart) for around $15. there is a smaller chain of grocery stores/banks (yes, both) called nonghyup. there is one near my apartment and they sell large tomatoes in smaller packages of six. i always get the smallest one since it is still more than i would really prefer to buy at once. some days the smallest one is around $9...sometimes is is closer to $5 or 6.
cheese...check...kind of... like i mentioned before, there is plenty of "singles" type cheese and also "pizza cheese" or shedded mozzerella, which is somehow not the same as mozzerella back home. also a few random things like string cheese and small things of brie. NO CHEDDAR (aka the most important cheese).
canned beans...check...kind of...several stores in donghae HAD black beans and chili beans, but i think my friend rachel and i have bought up the whole stock. only emart and this cheaper, more locally owned store called amart ever had any and we've bought them all and they haven't been replaced yet. i'm afraid i might have to start stocking up on these at homeplus too. also, they were around $3 for a can. there are also TONS of all kinds of dried beans than you can get literally everywhere including from the adjummas selling stuff on the side of the street, but who has time for that amiright?
what can i get at homeplus that i can't get in donghae?
first of all, and most importantly, REAL CHEESE!!!
this find was actually rare for homeplus even. sometimes if you go to a homeplus, especially if it's in a smaller city, they might not even have anything more than what i can get in donghae. i got this rare, true cheddar cheese yesterday at the homplus in gangeung, a city of arounf 230,000 which is about 40 minutes (and a $3 bus ride) north of donghae. they haven't even had this brand any previous time i've been in a homeplus. i bought three and they were about $6 each. i also got some shredded marble jack for quesadillas and whatnot.
the juice is 100% grapefruit juice, aka the best juice ever. even though emart and other stores in donghae sell this brand of juice, i can't find the grapefruit juice anywhere in town.
the tea is because you can't get english breakfast or other black teas in donghae even though they have approximately 20,000 kinds of tea at emart. "extra strong" is not my preferred kind. other times we've been to homeplus, they've had a really great organic tesco brand english breakfast.
the pasta is because it's whole grain and you can't get it in donghae. i only bought one because i still have two packs from last time.
the granola is because it's delicious and is a tesco product so you can't get it at emart. you also can't get any other kind of granola in donghae as far as i know.
what can't i find anywhere in korea?
refried beans. this one is easily solved though. iherb.com is a fanstastic website. their shipping prices (at least to korea) are very reasonable. they carry a lot of the other items that i can't get in korea as well. for example, amy's lentil soup, pesto sauce mix and macaroni and cheese.
there is really mainly one grocery item that continues to ellude me in korea. my favorite brand of hot sauce, tapatios. there are other kids of hot sauce here, but i really prefer tapatios for my mexican foods.