While Korea is a country which is often praised for its extremely healthy eating habits, those of you who have practiced clean eating in the West will definitely find sourcing the ingredients you are used to
challenging! I know that when I first arrived, I was so overwhelmed by the amount of strange products in the supermarket that I ended up becoming addicted to Korean instant ramen noodles, or “ramyeon” as we call them here. Needless to say, I gained a fair amount of weight in that time and, despite my other addiction to Korean beauty and skincare products, my face looked like a minefield! Fast forward a few months and I decided something had to change. I had heard many foreigners talking about I Herb, which is an American company who will ship all the quinoa and avocado oil you need to Korea for a flat $4 rate- my gateway to becoming healthy again! Now, almost 2 years on (oh my god, how did that happen!) from ramyeon rehab, I’ve actually learned to live, and eat clean with the ingredients that are right on my doorstep. No more parcels stuck in customs or hefty I Herb shopping bills- although I must admit, I do like the occasional I Herb treat now and then! These are my picks of some of the healthiest foods that you can find at any local mart, even in the most rural of towns.
I accidentally bought this grain in my first few months of Korea, thinking it was quinoa. After cooking it as I would usually cook quinoa, I was horrified at how grainy and dry it was. No amount of water under the sun could get this weird “quinoa” nice and fluffy! So now I’m wiser and I know that this isn’t quinoa, but millet, which does in fact offer similar health benefits. Many nutritionists are now dubbing it “the new quinoa” and “the new supergrain.” This stuff is in abundance in Korea, and is reasonably priced too. Just remember to follow MILLET cooking instructions and not QUINOA cooking instructions. A great substitute for all your quinoa recipes.
This is an absolute staple in my cupboard! Dangmyeon is a glass vermicelli noodle made from sweet potato starch so it is completely gluten free. Tastes great in stir fries and noodle dishes but also makes a good substitute for spaghetti or pasta. These noodles have a really subtle and soft taste so I find I can’t really taste the difference. The only difference is the chewier texture but if you like your pasta al dente, like I do, you’ll enjoy the extra chew!
Buckwheat is another one of those super, hybrid grain foods which you’ve probably heard a lot of healthy people banging on about. This is an ingredient which you definitely don’t need to order from I Herb. While you’re not likely to find buckwheat groats here- which is sad because it’s probably the most versatile form of buckwheat, you’ll have no problem finding buckwheat flour or buckwheat noodles, more commonly known by their Japanese name, “soba.” Now, a word of warning. Buckwheat noodles do NOT have a really subtle taste like dangmyeon. Trust me, I have made sobabol (soba bolognese) and it’s not quite the same. Try using these to make a more simple stir fry dish where the noodles themselves are the statement
Autumn is a great time for buying vegetable in Korea. I can pick up a small pumpkin (hobak- 호박) for less than 2000KRW (1.15GBP.) Great for making soups and pumpkin mash but unfortunately, the rest of the year it isn’t quite that easy.
A common root vegetable that is easy to get your hands on is sweet potato! Sweet potatos here (known as goguma-고구마) are a bit different to what we westerners are used to- the flesh is more of a purple colour, and the colour inside is more white than orange. They also taste a bit different- sweeter but not as strong. Despite the difference, these are super cheap, easy to get and easy to prepare. Another one of my year round staples.
In Korea, we are pretty spoiled for leafy veggies. Spinach (sigeumchi- 시금치) is cheap and easy to find here. I’ve also found myself stumbling upon kale in bigger supermarkets! However, my favourite new leafy green is one I had never heard about before coming to Korea- sesame leaves! (kkaenip- 깻잎) You probably recognise these from Korean BBQ restaurants, or the middle of your kimbab. Maybe you pick it out or avoid it- I was surprised to hear that lots of foreigners really hate sesame leaves. These are a member of the mint family and do have a slightly minty flavor, but totally different from fresh mint, a bit more peppery- it’s really difficult to describe unless you have tasted it! If you’re accustomed to the taste I recommend adding them to salads or smoothies.
Ask people what they know about Korea and chances are you’re going to hear “kimchi” mentioned. Koreans love their spicy fermented cabbage so it’s no surprise that you won’t have any problem finding some nice cheap cabbage round here. To step the nutrients up a notch, I tend to opt for purple cabbage. Now, I’m not a nutritionist and I don’t know the ins and outs but purple cabbage is purple, not white so it must be better for me? If not, it looks nice and pretty on my plate and that makes me smile.
Other vegetables that I always have on my shopping list are courgettes, broccoli , mushrooms (there are so many varieties out here!), spring onions, green peppers and cherry tomatoes. I’ve been making courgetti a lot recently as (another) substitute for spaghetti. If you go to your local mart you can pick up veggies for much cheaper than you would at a supermarket- definitely debunking the myth that it costs less to eat out every night of the week than to make a healthy meal here!
While so many vegetables are cheap and plentiful here, fruit is another story. The price of fruit is astronomical. Even common fruits, like apples, can cost about 12,000KRW for a bag. While this isn’t too much of a problem, since we can get so many of our daily nutrients from vegetables, sometimes we want a healthy sweet treat. And that is difficult to come by here. The trick is to stick to seasonal fruit. In spring, you can get a huge box of strawberries (dalgi- 딸기) for around 5,000KRW and in autumn (fall, for American readers) the shops are full of persimmons (gam-감) which taste amazing and custardy in smoothies.
Another great tip is to buy frozen fruit. I always have a bag of frozen blueberries in my freezer. I can buy 1KG for about 7000KRW, which I think is great value for money. I add these to smoothies or just defrost them and eat them plain. Great for sweet cravings after school.
This is one of these things that I only really found out about after arriving to Korea and will definitely be trying to source whenever I leave. These days, a lot of nutritionists are praising it for its many health benefits so it’s definitely readily available in western countries. Matcha is essentially a kind of green tea powder. It contains a lot more antioxidants than regular green tea because when you drink it you are digesting the whole green tea leaf. Sometimes, I like to cut out coffee and black tea and instead, make myself a matcha latte to start my day. I also tend to add a teaspoon of this to smoothies- it adds a really subtle green tea taste but gives you all the goodness of about 10 cups of green tea!
So, these are the foods I try to incorporate into my diet to try and keep healthy on a budget and make use of local resources. So many of us think that because we can’t source some cheap avocados or sourdough bread we can’t eat healthily or we need to order everything from I Herb. I hope this guide can help some people figure out what to eat, and what you can do with what’s around you. I know how lost I was when I first arrived in Korea! Let me know if you have any tips of your own, share the love!