A Popular Expat Question
I’m a member of many “Expat” community forums on Facebook, where people constantly post valid questions and receive helpful responses. I’m also a member of a fitness and health group, and this is a consistent topic that I find among foreigners in Korea attempting to eat healthy and budget well for meals. I put together a quick and short guide to all your grocery-related needs.
I do want to preface this by saying I live on the eastern edge of Seoul, so while I’m in a city, I’m not in the middle of Seoul nor in the countryside.
- E-mart Traders (Kind of like Costco)
- Home Plus
- Costco (If you have a membership in your home country it works in Korea too)
- Lotte Mart
- No Brand (A cheap product line; there’s a section in E-Mart and sometimes a dedicated store)
There are also department stores that have grocery sections, but since they’re considered premium, the prices will be twice as much as other supermarkets. Most big chain supermarkets will allow you to use a foreign credit card in the physical store. I personally use Discover at both E-Mart and HomePlus and haven’t had a problem.
Online-Only Grocery Stores
- Market Kurly
- Coupang Fresh
- GSShop (GsFresh)
- E-Mart and HomePlus also have websites
You may already know that online shopping is incredibly common in Korea, including grocery shopping. Not many people have a car, or if they do, they want to avoid city traffic. Therefore, a lot of Seoulites in particular, order online, especially if they’re heavy (boxes of potatoes, etc). There are some nice sales sometimes, but even online, grocery shopping can be quite pricey, especially for produce.
Produce Expenses in Korea
A common complaint you’ll hear regarding food in Korea is that produce is quite expensive. This is because farming land in Korea is limited, so Koreans rely on imports and only eat produce that is in season. In America (where I’m from), we have access to most produce at all times of the year, but Korea only offers decent prices on certain produce items at specific times of the year.
In general, supermarkets are going to have higher prices. If you want to buy fresh produce, I highly recommend this main option over the supermarkets: local outdoor markets.
This also depends on where you live, but there are two main kinds of local places. The first is called a 시장, which is a local, collective area where vendors gather to sell their produce brought directly from the farms. Vendors will prepare their own premade dishes and street snacks there too. They operate all year round outdoors, and some are bigger than others. You can find anything from premade side dishes (반찬) to meat, and of course, vegetables and fruit. It’s common to see prices displayed on pieces of cardboard amongst an array of vegetables and fruit. Sometimes the prices are higher, but the more in-season produce is, the more inexpensive the prices will be. Keep in mind they mostly accept cash (though some places will allow a local card).
There are also local marts or stand-alone spots that also sell some produce outside their shops. Sometimes they’re referred to as a Home Mart (홈마트). They aren’t guaranteed to have low prices all the time, but they’re a bit more reasonable than most supermarkets. However, these local places tend to sell things in larger quantities, so if you’re buying for yourself, I recommend that you separate and freeze it yourself or buy it online frozen in bulk.
When to Purchase Where
As someone who wants to maintain a healthy lifestyle without breaking the bank, I only go to the supermarket to purchase specific items. For example, I will purchase spices, herbs, coffee, and oatmeal (or cereal) at the supermarket. They’re typically priced more reasonably and sometimes physical stores have sales. Also, at the end of the day (around 6 and later) supermarkets will have “about to be expired” produce sitting out at reduced prices.
I also highly recommend subscribing to the Coupang rocket membership. It’s about 4.00 (USD) a month, and it’s extremely convenient. Their Coupang Fresh is good for buying things frozen or allows you access to certain snacks you may not be able to find locally, and they have guaranteed next-day shipping. I recommend buying frozen bags of mixed vegetables (or in my case, broccoli) on Coupang and dethaw it as you go to save money and keep it from getting spoiled.
I like to buy leafy greens, fruits, mushrooms, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots at the local market, but leafy greens can be found quite reasonably priced online too. Unless there’s a really good sale, I always recommend buying fruit locally—less transport means it’ll be cheaper for you than buying online. Fruit in general is tended to be priced higher in Korea due to transport, so you could find a big bag of them online frozen (or at the store) and just make it stretch for a while if you have the freezer space.
As a Single Living in Korea
Since it’s only me living here in Korea, I subscribe to a meal-delivery service because during the week I don’t have a lot of time to cook. I’ve written reviews on Nosh and Bistro-Box which you can find if you click on the names! They use quality, healthy ingredients with a constantly changing menu and awesome customer service. The only “groceries” I buy are snacks, in-season fruit, mixed greens, mushrooms, frozen bags of broccoli, and eggs to bulk up my existing pre-made meals. I also occasionally buy frozen bags of chicken or tofu and make stir fry on the weekends if I don’t go out to eat with friends.
Also, since I live in a studio apartment, there’s not really a lot of counter space to cook large meals for meal prep. I find the meal delivery service to be the most effective for me, but it totally depends on your taste and lifestyle.
A Taste of Home
If you’re missing spices, snacks, and other products from home, sometimes they can be found on the “rocket fastball” section of Coupang where they ship international products. They don’t always have everything, and sometimes the prices if they do are very expensive, but it’s an option. iHerb also ships to Korea for certain organic, healthy snacks and supplements. More physical stores like HomePlus or E-Mart carry some global products, so checking out a bigger supermarket is also a good option. If you live in or near Seoul, the foreigner-populated areas (such as Yongsan-gu) will have international markets.
I hope this brief introduction to shopping for groceries in Korea has helped you in your search! Your requirements will vary depending on if you’re here as a single, married, or have a family. In that case, purchasing memberships to bulk stores such as Costco may be a good option. Keep in mind transportation if you don’t have a car here! I hope I’ve helped you a little bit, and let me know what else you’d find useful for future posts. Thank you for reading! 🙂
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