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Ten things to buy on your first trip to a Korean grocery

by Mark Hoffman

first posted: 2/17/2018

last updated: 2/28/2018

So you discovered a liking for Korean flavors and want to add some Korean-style cooking to your culinary repertoire. You can find easy-to-follow visual recipes on YouTube. But shopping at any ethnic grocery store can be intimidating. Yet, after you start, I think you will discover that the owners and staff are friendly and helpful. And you will never need to hear "‘unexpected item in bagging area.’'

There are three Korean grocers in Grand Rapid, all in the same south-side neighborhood.

Seoul Market, 660 36th St SW, Wyoming, MI 49509

Lee's Oriental Market,  3004 Division Ave, Grand Rapids, MI 49548

Olympic Market, 3530 Division Ave S, Grand Rapids, MI 49548

What should you buy on your first shopping trip for Korean food? You may be seeking ingredients for a specific recipe. But the following are ten items you might consider buying even if they are not an immediately needed ingredient.

Chinese black rice from Olympic Market

Short grain rice (bap).  For me, as for many Americans, rice is rice. But in parts of the world where rice is the dominant grain, people often have strong feeling about specific varieties of rice. In Korea, varieties of short and medium grain rice are dominant. As the name suggests, these grains are relatively short and stubby. They are also more starchy, thus chewier and stickier, than their long grain relatives. Don’t bother looking for Korean-grown rice, as South Korea is a rice importer, not exporter. Good rice choices for Korean-style meals are the Calrose and Kokuho Rose varieties, usually from California. In Grand Rapids, you can find large bags of appropriate short/medium grain white rice at the Korean grocers. If you are shopping at Meijer, look for small bags of Nishiki brand “sushi rice.”

If your serving only Americans, they probably won't care much about the rice. But you won't impress a Korean guest with long-grain rice. If you need to use long grain rice, select an Asian variety with a respected reputation (e.g., basmati, jasmine), and consider rinsing only once and using extra water during cooking. This will produce stickier rice.

If you desire more nutritional value in your rice, you can seek out short/medium grain brown rice or black rice. Koreans also use these. Korean grocers carry black rice (aka forbidden rice, purple rice) which is  higher in antioxidants, protein, iron and dietary fiber than white or brown rice. If used for a Korean dinner, I suggest soaking the black rice for 12-24 hours and mixing the black (10 to 50 percent) into white rice. At full strength, the sweet nuttiness and chewy texture of black rice may be disconcerting.

The soy sauce aisle at Kim Nhung's Superstore on Division Avenue.

Soy Sauce (ganjang). Connoisseurs of Asian cuisine are just as passionate about the variations in soy sauces as they are about rice varieties. For most Grand Rapidians, the soy sauce aisle at Kim Nhung’s pan-Asian market can be bewildering. In Korean cuisine, there are two types of soy sauce. Traditional soy sauce, made in Korea for centuries, is now referred to as “soy sauce for soups” because, over the last century, its use has become mostly limited to soups, stews and some vegetable side dishes. It is much saltier (about 1,400 mg per tablespoon!) and lighter in color than other soy sauces. Ingredients are simply fermented soy beans and brine, which are aged from 2 months to 5 years. You will need to go to a Korean grocery store to buy this traditional soy sauce.

With its lower price, most Koreans now use "regular" soy sauce, which they sometimes refer to as "Japanese-style" soy sauce. This is the same kind you can buy in any American grocery store. Regular soy sauce is sweeter and darker. If you want higher quality regular soy sauce, look for a label that says “naturally brewed” and avoid one that have “hydrolyzed soy protein” or "defatted soybeans" as a main ingredient. Also, higher production quality won't require adding caramel color or corn syrup.

Hot Pepper Paste (gochujang) or Hot Pepper Powder (gochugaru).  These are essential in many Korean recipes. They can also be added to non-Korean dishes as a substitute or addition to your usual hot sauce or chili powder, respectively. Of the two, I think the paste is more appealing. I sometimes add gochujang to pizza sauce and ketchup. However, if you frequently use chili powder, you may be more comfortable experimenting with the gochugaru.  

Korean purple sweet potatoes from Lee's.

Korean purple sweet potatoes (goguma). Koreans love sweet potatoes. They roast them, steam them and fry them. They eat them as side dish with dinner and as a street food out of a cup. They put them in lattes, donuts, yogurt, tarts, noodles and even on pizzas. Koreans eat sweet potatoes that have purple-brown skins and a creamy, yellowish flesh. They rarely e at the less sweet, orange-fleshed varieties common in America. For creative ideas on how to use these potatoes, peruse Yummly's 268 recipes that include Korean sweet potatoes.     

Korean Pickled Yellow Radish (danmuji). Americans eat summer red radishes while Koreans eat winter white radishes. The most common Korean presentation is a yellow, sliced, pickled radish. The yellow color is provided by saffron, turmeric or food dye. You can make it yourself with a Korean radish (Mu) or with a similar Japanese radish (Daikon). The latter can be purchased at a Meijer. At a Korean grocer, you can buy fresh Mu, or Mu already pickled and sealed in plastic shrink wrap. I was surprised that the imported pickled radish contained saccharin, because I thought this artificial sweetener was a banned carcinogen. However, it seems this was a false alarm back in the 1970s, and saccharin is now considered safe, even though I have never seen it in an American product.

A jar of radish kimchi from Seoul Market

Kimchi. Even before your first trip to the Korean grocer, you probably have tried Kimchi. What you may not know is that kimchi refers to the fermenting process, not specifically to the cabbage. Almost any vegetable can be a kimchi. At the Korean grocers you can usually find radish kimchi, which I prefer. Your jar of kimchi will keep for six month in the refrigerator, getting more sour as it ages. Because of its strong smell, I suggest you double seal it by putting the glass jar in a zip-lock freezer bag. 

For centuries, Koreans stored this vital winter-time sustenance in pots buried in the ground. Today, many Korean homes have specialized kimchi refrigerators. Kimjang, the making and sharing of kimchi, has been placed by UNESCO on their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Thin cut sirloin tip (left) and thin cut beef short ribs (center) at Big Top Market

Thinly sliced steak for Korean grilled beef (bulgogi). Your first trip to the Korean grocer might be motivated by the desire to make Bulgogi. You need thinly sliced beef (sirloin, tenderloin, skirt steak or flank steak) that you can’t find at Meijer. The Korean grocer will have it in the freezer. If you don't want frozen meat, I suggest you try the Big Top Market at the corner of 36th Street and Clyde Park Ave. This is just a few blocks from Seoul Market, so it is very convenient if you are already shopping for Korean food. You can also use the thin-cut flank steak available at most Mexican grocers, intended for fajitas.     

Cross-cut short ribs for Korean barbecue (kalbi). If your first Korean recipe won’t be Bulgogi, then maybe it will be Kalbi (Korean Barbecued Beef Short Ribs). You need cross-cut (aka "flaken-style") short ribs that you can’t find at Meijer. Again, the Korean grocer will carry frozen ribs.  If you don't want frozen, Big Top is again a good option. So is Ralph’s on West Leonard  Street. Most Mexican grocers will also carry them. Kalbi is marinaded and grilled. But I often make a faux-kalbi by slow cooking either beef or pork cross-cut ribs in Korean-flavored soup (1 cup each of soy sauce, brown sugar, fruit juice, plus a tablespoon each of gochujang, garlic powder, onion powder, ginger powder, rice vinegar and sesame oil). 

Canned sweet red bean paste (danpat-tongjorim). My first “jelly donut” in Korea was filled with a delicious but unidentifiable sweet creamy substance that somewhat resembled poppy seed or prune filling. I was surprised to discover it was red beans.  This sugary red bean paste is used in many Korean dessert recipes, including putting it on shaved ice in the classic patbingsu. It can be also be used in ice cream, pastry, smoothies or soup. I am told that the homemade red bean paste can be much better than the canned version. However, I have never attempted this.       

Dried shredded squid (ojingeochae muchim).  In Korea, these salty, chewy things are omnipresent. Frequently, they are used as a salty snack, like Americans use pretzels or peanuts. They do taste good with soju. But they also appear as a side dish at dinner. I recommend stir frying them with the gochujang, garlic, and honey (or any sugary syrup).

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