Tag Archives: Food

Grocery Store Shuffle

2 Mar

When I talk with other foreigners here in Korea about some of their annoyances, many of them mention how much they hate going shopping at  the grocery store.

They complain about pushy Koreans who shove you out of the way and abruptly stop right in front of you with their shopping carts; or how there’s never a good time of day/week/month when a particular store is not completely packed with people shopping as if preparing for a  global apocalypse. Then there’s complaints about product representatives who stand at the ends of  aisles screaming at shoppers in an attempt to influence their purchasing decisions–the reason you might walk into a store looking only to buy a soda a some chips, but walk out with a head of cabbage and the latest brand of Korean baby formula. Lastly, the most often cited annoyance is the exuberant prices you’re likely to spend for the oddest things–no Bullshit, I saw a bottle of maple syrup going for damn near $26.

Now all of these are very valid points worth whining about, but as I see it we shouldn’t let these simple nuances deter us and overshadow some of the more interesting elements of shopping at a Korean grocery store. In many ways a trip to the local store can be quite interesting if you know how to approach it. Let me explain.

For starters, let’s look at the obvious. In Korea the term “grocery store” doesn’t quite do these places justice. They should be called “smorgasbord stores,” because you can literally get just about anything you might need on any given day. This is one of the things that amazed me about the stores in my neighborhood when I first arrived in Busan. Not that I’d ever need to, but should I ever want, I can purchase hiking boots, a new washing machine and a space heater–along with milk and eggs–all from the same place. If I was so inclined to (perhaps if I was in a rush with little time before a date, for example), I could also grab a stylish pair of boxer briefs and some designer cologne. Some of you may be less than impressed by all of this, but next time there’s some random item that you can’t find anywhere, check the nearest grocery store. Chances are they’ll have it.

I once needed to have a spare key made for my apartment (I don’t live in one of the more modern buildings with an entry keypad). I checked out every hardware shop in my neighborhood and scoured the subway underground mall looking for any place that would be able to copy a key. Turns out there’s a locksmith’s booth on the third floor of my local Megamart–right across from a McDonald’s, Converse outlet store and the Megamart dry-cleaning service. Amazing. At the time I didn’t even know Megamart had a third floor.

Besides their versatility, Korean grocery stores can also be a cheap place to grab a bite to eat. Most of them have small diners located right in the store (usually near the frozen foods or meat and poultry sections) where you can buy a wide assortment of spruced up Korean street food. Tight on cash? Hit up the free samples. As long as you make it look like you might actually buy whatever you’re sampling you can usually eat as much as you want, but make sure to use the best judgement. If the clerk starts throwing up a fuss, it’s probably best to move on. There’s no sense in getting chin-checked by an ajumma because you wanted an extra piece of mandu.

Lastly, visiting the grocery store can be quite the hilarious adventure if you’re open minded enough. You’d be amazed at the shit they place together. It would be odd to wonder thorough the frozen pizza aisle and end up in the womens’ shoes section back in the states but in Korea, this type of thing is a completely normal occurrence. You might be looking to pick up some spaghetti noodles and discover you also need mayonnaise. Not because you’re out, but because the mayonnaise is probably strategically placed on the shelf just below the spaghetti. Who knew the two went together? After you’ve grabbed your pasta and mayo, head over to the next isle and pick up some sliced cheese. It should be right next to the soju and rice wine.  Tortillas and rice cakes, eggs and cucumbers, dried seaweed and curry sauce; the combinations are endless and each one is more bizarre than the last. True, this can make finding specific items a nightmare, but after a few trips you’ll get the layout down pact. Until then I’d let it the stress roll off your shoulders and simply enjoy the randomness.

Now because I’m really curious as to what grocery stores people most frequent these days (Megamart is my current favorite, but there’s always shit I can never seem to find there), I’ve decided to take a poll: What is your favorite grocery store in Korea? I’ve never done a poll on my blog and I don’t expect it to become a regular occurrence, but I figure I might as well use the feature I’ve only recently discovered exists.

I realize some of you may not cook your own food and could’t be bothered to go grocery shopping outside of picking up beer so obviously there’s no need for you to participate. The rest of you, however, can find the poll on the right at the top of the sidebar.  Be a good friend and cast your vote, and If the spirit really moves you, feel free to drop an explanation about your choice in the comments section.

Ciao,

Kimchi Dreadlocks

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Eat and Be Merry

22 Nov

*First off, I should apologize for not posting in nearly two weeks. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been busy or because I temporarily lost use of my fingers, but this would just be a lie. The truth is I’ve been having a stint of writers block and thus have been spending more time outside of my apartment during the week as opposed to staying in to write. No worries though. The juices are flowing again. Enough said.

Among the perks of teaching in Korea, one of my favorites is the mandatory staff dinners. Unfortunately, I’m not lucky enough to have co-workers that regularly get plastered and spend weeknights slaughtering songs at the local noraebang, so I have to take whatever opportunities I can to cut loose with my fellow teachers.

In my situation, the staff dinners occur with no regularity and–as with everything else that goes on at the school–I’m almost always the last to find out about them, usually just minutes before I make my escape for the day.

Still, I look forward to them. Why?

For starters, we always eat Korean barbeque, but for me it might as well be crack because that shit has me hooked. Ever since my first run-in with it shortly after I arrived in Busan, I’ve been chasing the high.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s bulgogi, samgyupsal, or kalbi; if I go one week without my fix, I damn near experience withdrawal symptoms. My fear is that without it, my co-teachers may have to pay a visit to my apartment after I don’t show up to work and they’ll find me laying naked on the floor in the fetal position shaking, fists tightly clenched around a pair of meat tongs and a clove of garlic. It’s that bad, people.

Additionally, I never have to pay. Not that I’m a cheap bastard, but a free meal is just that–free. There’s no point in shelling out several thousand won (or more if you’re a moron like myself and decide to grocery shop and cook your own food) when your school is more than happy to feed you at their expense.Well, i assume they are more than happy to pay. Usually when the meal is winding down I put a dumb look n my face and try to find a ride home as quickly as possible.

Even for it being free Korean barbeque though, staff dinners have a dangerous side to them as well, and as most of us already teaching in Korea know, that dangerous side is the amount of soju you consume, not by choice per se, but because you usually feel obligated to due to the fact that all of your co-workers (principal and vice principal included) are knocking the shit back as if they’d loose their Korean citizenship if they didn’t. Friends, if you never head any of the bullshit advice I spew on this blog, head this: never attempt to go shot-for-shot drinking soju with Koreans.

This is somewhat hard for me as I rarely get to interact with the men in my school because most of them are homeroom teachers that I don’t see on a normal basis. The staff dinners are really the only time I get to split off from my c0-teachers and other women I work with and shoot the shit with the males. It seems nothing brings them more joy than to plop down next to me with a bottle of soju looking to exchange a few simple words in english along with a few doses of the green bottled monster. Even the principals get in on the action.

During the last dinner, one of the homeroom teachers– we’ll call him Mr. Boastful–decides to come over to my table and share a few shots. Before doing so he announces to the other teachers that he feels like I am a global citizen and that he is quite fond of having me in the school. Naturally I cannot refuse his accompanying offer of soju, right?  After all the man has just given me a compliment. Immediately after we toast and drink, the Vice Principal comes over, holds my hand and proceeds to give his own speech before pouring several more shots. Again am I supposed to tell him no? I’m sure it’s written somewhere in my contract that if the vice principal of your school holds your hand and gives a speech about you in Korean, you have to join him in a celebratory toast of Korea’s most potent adult beverage.

Eventually my co-teachers stand up to leave and tell me they can give me a ride home, when Mr. Boastful interjects, assuring me that help me fetch a cab later if I would opt to stay. Because I’m still a bit hungry and there’s still meat on the grill (and because the soju has me feeling jolly), I accept his offer.

Almost two hours and several soju bottles later we’re at a completely different restaurant eating clams and loudly professing that we are indeed brothers from different mothers.

Through broken Korean and English we discuss some of the reasons I decided to come to Korea and his reasons why Korea is a far better country than China or Japan–boisterous  and a bit crude, but endearing nonetheless.

Before deciding to take off, we finish off one final bottle, and for whatever reason, I decide to pay for the meal which we barely ate. He was quite pleased and my gesture, and I was out 30,000 won–so much for the free meal.

We split a cab and the entire way home Mr. Boastful continuously reminds me of our new found fraternal connection, and that we should soon go mountain climbing as he is an expert.

The next morning I wake up earlier than usual, almost fully clothed, with breath that smells like kimchi sautéed in raw sewage.

Should I be embarrassed by all of this? Maybe, but I’ve since written it off as nothing more than enjoying a Korean cultural experience. Though next time I’ll probably fill my shot glass with water and spare myself the morning poo-poo breath.

Ciao,

Kimchi Dreadlocks

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