Moving to Seoul? Food and ingredient expectations

3

November 25, 2012 by ka101010

We spent the summer of 2008 in Seoul before our big move in 2012. Equipped with prior knowledge, we had an idea of which goods were readily available, and which goods were available but prohibitively expensive. I may sound like a cheapskate here, but I just hate feeling ripped off…

Here is a sampling of food- and kitchen-related stuff to expect if you are moving to Seoul. I will periodically update this post and create a list in a future post.

Kitchenwares and appliances
Baking ingredients
Pizza
Asian ingredients
Honey and natural sweeteners
Beer
Herbs
Produce
Butter
Meats and Seafood
Cheese
Wine

Kitchenwares and appliances: You can find almost anything you need for your kitchen in Korea, but it’s important to be aware of several things:

  • Ovens are not a standard appliance in Korean homes. Many of my Korean and expat friends have toaster ovens or smart ovens (mini convection ovens with a bunch of cool features). If your place has an oven, be aware that the oven size may be much smaller than in the United States. My Samsung gas oven is 40cm wide x 43cm deep and some of my American cookie sheets are too big to fit. Some roasting pans (especially ones that can handle a turkey) may not fit either.
Samsung Oven

My Samsung home oven. Goes up to 300C, manual temperature dial, includes a built-in timer. My Williams-Sonoma baking stone just barely fits. I always use an oven thermometer.

  • Utensils, pots and pans are available at big box stores and traditional markets like Namdaemun, but you will find a huge range in quality and price. Generally, almost anything imported will be insultingly more expensive than what you are used to paying at home (espresso machines, American/European brand cookware and bakeware, etc). Daiso is great if you need plastic food containers, cheap nonstick pans, spatulae, etc. Bring specialty pans that you use regularly, as well heavier duty appliances that you can’t live without. If bringing appliances, invest in several converters (Korea is on 220V). Also, if you buy a converter with a 110V/220V combo and have all 110V devices, do yourself a favor and block off the 220V outlet. I accidentally fried my beloved, tiny American rice cooker by plugging it into the wrong socket.

Baking ingredients: Baking soda/powder, instant yeast, flours, baking chocolates, sugars, and baking mixes are available at some small marts, big box stores like Lotte Mart, imported food stores and Bangsan Baker’s Market. Formulations may be different from what you are accustomed to, so experimentation is key. I’ve discussed the difference between North American unbleached all-purpose flour and Korean hard flour in a previous post. If you are unsure which flour to buy and the pictures/product names aren’t helping, look at the protein (단백질) content on the nutritional label. Here are clues to look out for:

Hard/bread flour: at least 12 grams protein per 100 grams (12%). Korean hard flour lacks the aroma and creamy tint of North American flours like Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur, you’ll most likely detect a difference in flavor as a result. Beksul (백설), Woorimil (우리밀), and Q1 (큐원) are the most common brands.
All purpose flour: at least 9 grams protein per 100 grams. Rough equivalent of pastry flour, works well in cookies and cakes. Most likely bleached. Beksul (백설) and Q1 (큥원) are the most common brands.
Whole wheat flour: look/ask for 통밀가루 “tong mil ga roo” (whole meal flour). Korean equivalent is probably closer to white whole wheat flour. At least 13 grams protein per 100 grams. Woorimil (우리밀) brand is the most common.

Pizza: Pizza sauces at local chains like Mr. Pizza are really sweet, almost like ketchup. You may find corn on your pizza. The Korean interpretation of foreign foods can be super interesting, and sometimes a total miss. Some independently owned pizzerias try to stay true to NY style or even have brick ovens, just be prepared to pay premium prices.

Asian ingredients: Korean ingredients obviously abound. But just because you’re in Asia doesn’t mean you’ll find the same variety of products you are accustomed to seeing in a big Asian grocery in North America. For example, fresh Thai herbs and aromatics, wonton wrappers, etc may be hard to find at even large supermarkets. You can find lemongrass, cilantro/coriander, tamarind, Indian spices etc at the Foreign Food Mart in Itaewon or other imported food stores and some department stores. If you will be living far from a department store or Itaewon, it’s best to bring a stash with you.

Honey and other natural sweeteners: Honey is ridiculously expensive, and may be cut with other ingredients. Natural maple syrup (ie: not Aunt Jemima, Log Cabin) is also extremely costly. Agave syrup is widely available at department store groceries. Bring several pounds/kilos of everything if you can. Also makes makes impressive gifts for Korean friends.

Beer: The local beer market is dominated by the notoriously tasteless duopoly of Cass and Hite brands. I usually try to maintain a tolerant regard towards Korean products, but dude, Korean beer doesn’t even taste good with Korean food. You might as well drink carbonated water. Most local beers are brewed from rice instead of malted barley, which is cheaper but results in the non-existent flavor that beer snobs so often equate with Budweiser and Natural Ice. Even Max (brewed from actual malt) isn’t worth the calories or hangover. Did I already say you might as well drink carbonated water? Import tariffs and retail markups on imported beers are high. Even with new FTAs (free trade agreements), local retailers will probably maintain high markups for some time. The beer situation in Korea will probably not change until the market demand encourages local large-scale production of craft style/higher gravity beers. Things are looking up as more and more upscale bars introduce imported craftbrews to the well-heeled local population, and brewpubs gain popularity. Rogue, Anderson Valley, Julius Echter, Delerium Tremens, Weihenstephaner and Hitachino have become more available, but expect to pay upwards of 10,000KRW a bottle at a bar and 6,500KRW a bottle at specialty stores.

If you homebrew, bring all your gear and a few kits and check out Homebrew Korea and goodbeer (this is a Korean homebrew retail site).

Herbs: Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, etc) can be found at department store groceries, but usually unavailable at smaller marts. Fresh cilantro/coriander is one of the more elusive, though I have had luck finding it in Itaewon. Cilantro/coriander is actually considered medicinal in Korea and not really used in cooking. I also suspect that a larger portion of the population perceives it as “soapy-tasting.” Thai basil is rare, I have not yet found a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant in Seoul that uses it (and it’s a major flavor component in those cuisines, oh well).

Produce: Produce in Korea is seasonal. Once summer is over, say goodbye to watermelons (or pay a steep premium for imported out-of-season produce). Fresh produce is also much more expensive in Korea than in the US (As of November 2012, Koreans households spend nearly 14% of their income on food). Going out to Korean restaurants for jigae or bibimbap is often less expensive than making a meal at home. Prices aside, you can make familiar dishes using local ingredients. You may need to experiment with Korean/Asian varieties and their flavors/textures to get a close approximation of what you’re trying to achieve. Also, unless you get your produce direct from a local farm, don’t be surprised if the produce goes off quicker than you are used to.

Butter: Butter and margarine are sold in single “bricks” of ≈ 450 grams. Only Costco sells the handy 8 oz stick format. “Q1 Seoul Margarine Free” is a locally-produced (but waxy) vegan margarine.  If you like to bake cookies but don’t frequent Costco, living in Korea gives you a good reason to buy a little kitchen scale. Otherwise, you’re relegated to letting refrigerated butter til it’s soft, stuffing it in a measuring cup, and putting away the rest. Using a scale will save you time, result in better baking outcomes, and allow you to work between metric and volume/imperial units.

Meats and seafood: Meats and seafood are often priced per 100 grams. Beef is more expensive in Korea compared to the US. Pork and chicken are reasonably priced. Lamb is not (yet) popular in Korea, but can be found for reasonable prices at Costco and imported food stores. Good selection of seafood (salmon, tuna, shrimps, squids, etc). At some small E-Marts, shellfish is available in little plastic sleeves filled with water (short-necked clams in shell, shelled oysters). If you don’t mind the extra work of getting the clam out of each shell, you can easily make your own New England Style Clam Chowder in Korea. Almost everything (clams, cream, milk, butter, celery/leeks) can be found at a local mart.

Cheese: You can find imported cheeses at department store groceries, imported food stores and Costco. Common imported cheeses include cheddars, brie, camembert, blue cheeses, European and American processed cheeses (shredded, in single sheets), small portions of fresh mozzerella, Grano Padano, Parmesan (Reggiano and non-DOC)…You’ll notice a markup. If you can procure rennet tablets and other cheese starters, you can make your own cheese at home using Pasteur and Ildong “low temperature” milk.

Wine: The wine culture here has really begun to blossom in the past few years. In 2008, I remember seeing a bottle of Yellow Tail Australian Shiraz going for 40,000KRW at Hyundai Department Store. Since then, prices have calmed down a bit and the selection has skyrocketed. Chilean wines are often a good deal due to the recent FTA (awesome news for Malbec fans!). There are lots of wine bars in Seoul with excellent selections. Happy Koreans encourage the “one shot” command, and this sometimes extends to wine. Imagine downing an entire glass of elegant Margaux in one gulp…This, thankfully, is changing too!

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3 thoughts on “Moving to Seoul? Food and ingredient expectations

  1. patton nam says:

    Hi I came across ur site and am wondering where u can pick up some King Arthur AP unbleached flour here in Seoul. My name is Patton and am getting started in baking.

    • ka101010 says:

      Good question. Actually, I have been using the King Arthur flour that I brought with me from the US. I have not been able to find King Arthur in Seoul as of December 2012. I have seen King Arthur Organic Unbleached All-Purpose flour on iHerb.com for about $4USD (2 lbs/approx 1 kg). This is about twice the price I am used to paying in the US, but I plan to start ordering from that site once I exhaust my supplies! iHerb.com also carries Arrowhead Mills and Bob’s Red Mill, other excellent brands.
      Bob’s Red Mill (All-purpose unbleached, whole wheat and dark rye) is comparable to King Arthur and can be bought (the old-fashioned way) at Bangsan Baker’s Alley in Dongdaemun market and the Imported Goods Market at Namdaemun.
      King Arthur does provide international shipping and provides great customer service, but shipping and taxes make the price quite steep.

  2. Nice! Thank you for sharing!

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