Shopping is a part of every travel itinerary. It has become an unspoken rule among travelers to purchase local specialties that can be only bought in one place and that have an authentic taste. Fresh products, especially, have a short shelf live, requiring extra care and attention in keeping freshness and hygiene. If fresh traditional Korean food is what you want, the information below will come in handy as it will introduce fresh foods with relatively longer shelf lives, making very popular souvenirs.
In Korea, no meal is complete without a side of kimchi. Typically, Chinese cabbage or white radish is salted and mixed with red chili pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, fermented seafood, and other ingredients. The types of kimchi vary by region and season. Kimchi has more than 180 varieties, including baechu-kimchi (배추김치, cabbage kimchi, most commonly served), kkakdugi (깍두기, chopped radish kimchi) and yeolmu-kimchi (열무김치 young radish water kimchi).
Baek kimchi (백김치, white cabbage kimchi), a variety of kimchi made without red chili pepper flakes, is highly recommended for those who are not a fan of spicy foods.
Made from a diversity of vegetables, kimchi contains an abundance of dietary fibers and is low in calories. It is also a source of important vitamins and minerals. Kimchi started gaining international acclaim as a souvenir for its medicinal qualities. Many studies over the years suggest that the lactobacillus in kimchi helps fight against bacteria and cancer, and helps prevent aging and obesity.
Vacuum-packed kimchi is highly recommended for travelers planning to take kimchi with them to pass stringent customs and prevent any leaks. A variety of packaged kimchi types are readily available in department stores, supermarkets, convenience stores and duty free shops.
Gochu-jang is Korea’s traditional fermented condiment. The true flavor of gochu-jang lies in the combination of sugary, salty and spicy tastes. It is a red hot paste made of steamed rice or barley, rice cake powder, or rice porridge mixed with fermented soybean powder, salt, and red pepper powder.
Gochu-jang contains an abundance of nutrients benefiting the human body. One of them is capsaicin, which is the naturally-occurring compound found in peppers: it is what gives gochu-jang its spicy taste. Capsaicin is believed to have anti-bacterial effects, as well as stimulate appetite and help with digestion.
Gochu-jang is sold either in a plastic tub or a tube. Some manufacturers offer products with varying degrees of spiciness. The standard unit of spiciness, running from one to five, is the ‘GHU’ (Gochu-jang Hot taste Unit). Knowing this unit system will come in handy when purchasing gochu-jang; the higher the unit, the stronger the spiciness.
Gim (김, dried seaweed) is a regular side dish in Korea. It is crisp and tasty and is often seen sprinkled atop a range of dishes, adding its own unique flavor and texture.
Gim has everything that the human body needs. Five pieces of dried gim contain the same amount of protein as one egg, and the amount of vitamin A in one piece of gim is equivalent to the amount found in two eggs.
Korean gim has received much enthusiasm from international food connoisseurs for its unparalleled quality. Gim is usually bought in bulk and is often well packaged, making for a luxurious souvenir.
Gim comes in a variety of types and packaging methods, which can be easily found in supermarkets. As gim is particularly susceptible to moisture, it needs to be wrapped in paper or newspaper, placed in a container, and stored in the freezer to be stored over a longer period of time.
Ginseng is a root with a bitter taste and strong flavor whose shape resembles a human body. Korean ginseng in particular is known worldwide for its amazing health benefits. There are typically three types of ginseng: susam (or saengsam), unprocessed ginseng picked right out of the field; baeksam, cleaned and dried ginseng: and hongsam, steamed and dried six-year-old ginseng (red in color).
Although ginseng contains plenty of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, its health benefits cannot fully be explained without mentioning saponins. The saponins in ginseng are usually referred to as ‘ginsenosides’. Ginsenosides boost immunity and help fight cancer as well as provide a fast recovery from fatigue.
There are a variety of ginseng products on the market. Customers can purchase hongsam in liquid form, extracts, capsules, or tablets. Ginseng candy and jellies are available in many stores.
Korean Ginseng is a high quality souvenir, and can be purchased in department stores, supermarkets, road shops and ginseng specialty shops.
Ramen Instant Noodles
Korean instant noodles are the most adored instant food in Korea, a good substitute for a hearty meal at a reasonable price. As such, they have become a popular souvenir for international tourists to take home and share with friends and family. The noodles come in a plethora of flavors from non-spicy broths to stir-fried noodles with a cheese or spaghetti flavoring; the most common noodles are those with a spicy broth.
These days, extremely spicy ramen noodles have become the new trend in Korea’s instant noodle market. Fans of hot and spicy foods should definitely try them out.
Single packets of ramen can be found at any small supermarkets or convenience stores.
Bundles of five ramen packets can be purchased at large supermarkets in Korea.
Recently, DIY-style home baking supplies in little boxes have been setting a trend in Korea.
DIY baking supplies, also known as ‘cooking mix’ in Korean, is tailored to the need of beginner bakers, as flour, sugar and other dry materials are precisely measured and packed. Cooking mix packages come in a wide range of products, including not only basic baked goods such as cookies, breads and cakes but also hotteok (Korean pancake), haemul-pa-jeon (seafood green onion pancake) and even ice cream, which will definitely give you some fun options to choose from.
Depending on the cooking mix, special kitchen utensils and equipment may be required. The mixes can be purchased at convenience stores or supermarkets, but mega-sized department stores or supermarkets, in general, have more options in cooking mixes.
Korean snacks, being not only tasty but also nicely packaged, are well-deserving of being one of the best souvenirs.
Snacks come in different shapes and flavors, from sweet snacks that can even be a substitute for fancy desserts, to salty snacks that stimulate your appetite and spicy snacks that many Koreans prefer.
Korean consumers have dramatically become more health-conscious and cautious about the ingredients that are used in snacks. Try out some of the various quality organic snacks coming out these days.
Korean Traditional Snacks
The most representative snacks in Korea are tteok (떡, rice cakes) and hangwa (한과, traditional confectionery).
In Korea, rice cakes can be eaten as everyday snacks, and also served on special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and memorial services.
Rice cakes usually have a sweet filling or sweet covering and are made from grains that are steamed or boiled and then shaped in various ways. Its irresistible chewiness is what attracts most Koreans as well as foreigners.
Hangwa is made from flour combined with honey, sugar, or taffy. Depending on the individual recipe, hangwa can have a variety of shapes, flavors, and textures. Yugwa (deep-fried mixture of grain flour and honey), yakgwa (Korean fried honey cookies), jeonggwa (fruits, plant roots, and seeds in sugar) and dasik (a type of cookie eaten with Korean tea) are the main types of Hangwa.
Hangwa snacks are readily available in numerous specialty stores and may also be purchased in department stores or supermarkets. Yugwa and jeonggwa are individually packed and gracefully wrapped in a box, comparable with luxurious presents.
Fruit vinegar is produced by acetic acid bacteria from fermented fruits. It is known for its health benefits as well as skin care with sweet and sour taste, also effective in relieving fatigue and constipation.
The most convenient way to consume is by mixing with water. A 3:1 ratio of water to fruit vinegar is the general rule of thumb; the proportions can be changed depending on personal preference.
A variety of flavors are available including pomegranate, blueberry, green grapes, bokbunja (Korean black raspberry) and lemon. Soju tastes smooth when mixed with the refreshing fruity vinegar.
Fruit vinegar can be purchased in varying sizes from a small bottle of 50mℓ to 500mℓ, 900mℓ and 1.8ℓ. The shelf life of the vinegar is approximately 18 months from the date of manufacture. It can be stored at room temperature out of direct sunlight but needs to be refrigerated after opening.
Korean Traditional Alcohol
Much like beer in Germany, wine in France, and vodka in Russia, makgeolli and soju are the representative alcoholic beverages of Korean culture.
Of all of Korea’s traditional alcohols, makgeolli has the longest history. It has a milky, opaque color and a low alcohol content of 6-13%. It is relatively low in calories and high in protein. It also contains high levels of yeast and lactobacillus, giving it a nutty and sweet flavor.
The most adored drink in Korea is diluted soju, with an alcohol content of about 20%. Its popularity is in part due to its relatively low price in Korea. Recently, fruit-flavored sojus have swept the nation, gradually growing its fan base.
Makgeolli and soju can easily be purchased in marts and corner stores from Seoul to even the smallest of towns. The packages of soju vary from drink boxes to plastic bottles. As alcohol purchases by minors are strictly prohibited in Korea, a form of photo identification with the date of birth shown is required upon purchases including alcohol.
Korean Traditional Tea
Healthy and delicious traditional Korean teas have now earned fame among international tourists. Korea’s traditional teas include green tea, yujacha (유자차, citron tea), maesilcha (매실차, plum tea), mogwacha (모과차, Chinese quince tea), omijacha (오미자차, schizandra tea), saenggangcha (생강차, ginger tea), and daechucha (대추차, jujube tea), as well as sikhye and sujeonggwa.
Nokcha (녹차), or green tea, is made from tea leaves that have a bitter and refreshing taste. The green tea leaves are dried and roasted to be consumed. They are usually enjoyed steeped in hot water. Green tea in a power form and teabags are also popular for their convenience.
Yujacha, maesilcha, mogwacha, omijacha, saenggangcha and daechucha are made from fruits sliced and stored with sugars or honey. In winter, it is enjoyed with hot water and served chilled in summer. These days, fruit tea ingredients are also popular toppings for patbingsu (shaved ice with red bean toppings), a summer desert in Korea.
Sikye is made of sweet rice and malt, with a delicate and smooth taste. Made of ginger, cinnamon, and dried persimmon boiled in water with sugar and then served chilled, sujeonggwa tastes both sweet and spiced. These dessert drinks are frequently served in Korean restaurants, helping to aid digestion.
Traditional teas are readily available in supermarkets, department stores, and convenience stores. There are a wide variety of green tea products sold in the form of powdered tea, teabags, or whole roasted leaves. Yujacha, mogwacha and saenggangcha are sold in bottles but also come in the form of powder, packets or tea bags. Sikhye and sujeonggwa are sold in cans or bottles in grocery stores.