Grocery Store Shuffle
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.