How To Shop A Korean Grocery Store Like A Pro

South Korean customers choose imported fruits at a store on November 20, 2003 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Whether you're in Fullerton, Garden Grove or Los Angeles's Koreatown, you'll always find a Korean grocery store. Often, it's an HMart (Hanahreum, for the old-school folks) but sometimes it's an Arirang, a Hannam or a HanKook Supermarket. You can go into them and get a kimbap snack at the cafe, try mandoo from the sample ladies, peruse kitchenware, purchase K-beauty products or grab some soju for a party. With their endless aisles, buffets and cafes, these markets are the beating heart of Korean culture. They're also a foodie nirvana. But decoding their fresh and packaged wonders can feel intimidating for the unacquainted. First, a little history.

Why does Southern California have so many Korean grocery stores? Because we have so many Koreans.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, 220,000 Korean immigrants live in the Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim area. They started coming here in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, "Old Koreatown" had sprung up near USC, at Jefferson Boulevard between Vermont and Normandie. After the Watts Riots of 1965 and major freeway construction, Koreatown shifted north and west to Olympic Boulevard.

By 1970, 63% of all Koreans in the United States lived in L.A. or Orange counties. Thanks to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the largest wave of migration was still to come. The number of Korean immigrants in the U.S. grew from 11,200 in 1960 to 38,700 in 1970, more than tripling. By 2013, there were 1.1 million Korean immigrants in the U.S.

Today, Koreatown sprawls beyond its boundaries, defined by the Los Angeles Times as the area roughly bordered by Beverly Boulevard, Virgil Avenue, Olympic Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard. Any Koreatown denizen knows you can find Korean food and beauty services further south, on Pico, often for better prices.

For those who want to trawl the aisles of their local Korean market like a pro, culinary treasures of petite melons, savory soybean pastes and toasty rice soup await. Having a few ideas about what you'd like to cook helps. For kimbap, you'll need rice, sea salt, seaweed, damugi (pickled radish), sesame oil and bamboo rollers. For bibimbap, you'll need spinach, soybean sprouts, sesame oil, eggs, rice and gochujang. Peruse recipes from Korean cooking websites Maangchi and Korean Bapsang to formulate a game plan and you'll be ready to shop.

Noorongi at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Noorongi

My mother used to make her family save the toasted rice at the bottom of the pot, called noorongi, because she loved its toasted, crunchy flavor. She wasn't the only one. Manufacturers thought the taste was popular enough that quite a few companies now sell packaged noorongi. Think of noorongi like a dry ramen noodle in the package. All you need to do is add some boiling water to the hardened rice to make a savory soup, tossing in dashida, garlic and scallions into the broth and adding a piece of kimchi to each spoonful. You can continue to boil the soup or eat it as is. Don't expect the noorongi rice to completely dissolve and make an even soup. It'll stay watery but the water flavor will be toasty. I've generally found the various brands of noorongi to be similar in flavor, so taste away.

Chamoe, a not-too-sweet yellow melon commonly sold at Korean grocery stores. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Chamoe

This not-too-sweet yellow melon is the perfect summer snack on a hot day. Families often gather around with a pile of chamoe melons, peeling and seeding them, then slicing them into pieces. The taste falls somewhere between a cucumber and a honeydew, without much of the sweetness. Traditional Korean chamoe were even less sweet than they often are today but Japanese farmers bred them to be sweeter during the occupation of Korea. (You can buy a less-sweet heirloom version from Alameda-based farmer Kristyn Leach via Truelove Seeds). Look for the darker yellow melons to find the ripest ones.

Various types of dried ojinguh (dried squid) are sold at a Korean market. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Dried Ojinguh

As a child, my mom would go to the Yellow Sea and catch squid or cuttlefish, then cut their stomachs in half and take out the guts. After washing them, she would stretch a stick in between the "ears" at the top of the head and hang the squid to dry in the sun. Already salty from the sea, the umami-packed sheets made for mouthwatering snacks or a perfect side dish after cutting them into strips with scissors. They could later be roasted, reconstituted in water and made into a side dish with gochujang or eaten plain, as accompaniments to beer or soju. Look for these packets to come in many flavors, from spicy to honey butter to plain, and take your scissors to them for happy hour.

Crisp, refreshing, Chardonnay-colored Korean pears are typically harvested from September to November. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Korean Pears

From September to November, Koreans harvest these crisp, refreshing, Chardonnay-colored Asian pears. They aren't as sweet as Western pears. They're also grainier and less likely to easily turn to mush when ripe. Packaged in foam nets to prevent bruising and damage, these huge round pears are best when peeled, sliced and eaten raw. Look for firm, unbruised pears that are golden in color. Some things you might try making: Korean pear juice, renowned for curing hangovers, or bae-suk, a popular cold remedy made with honey and ginger. They aren't cheap. They cost around $3 per pound, since they don't grow well in Southern California and are often imported from the Northwest.

Sujeonggwa, a warming cider made from dried persimmons, cinnamon sticks and brown sugar, is for sale on the middle shelf. Shikhae (also spelled shikhye), a cooling rice and barley malt punch, is on the lower shelf. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Sujeonggwa

During Korea's frigid winters, dried persimmons, cinnamon sticks and brown sugar make for a warming cider. This punch is popular on special occasions and holidays, but I like to make this punch at home whenever I need a little warm-me-up. (It's also great cold out of your fridge in the summer). Although the Paldo store version won't rival what you make at home, pour some into a mug, throw a cinnamon stick in it and heat it up on the stovetop. It'll feel like it's homemade when the flavors waft into your kitchen.

Shikhae

During hot and humid Korean summers, shikhae is a cooling rice and barley malt punch that makes me think of a less sweet horchata. With pieces of sweet rice and pine nuts floating in the punch, this drink is an example of how Koreans blur the lines between sweet and savory foods. Although the process of making this drink is labor-intensive, you can purchase it in boxes full of little cans. I prefer the Paldo brand but the Dong Won brand is tasty too. The small cans give you the perfect amount, so you don't overdose on sugar.

Kimbap, also known as "seaweed rice," makes for an easy and popular traveling snack. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Kimbap

When my parents were growing up in Korea, before refrigeration, joomuk-bap, or "fist rice," a triangle of seaweed wrapped around rice and veggies, was a popular traveling snack. Finding that salty seaweed was a great preservative, Koreans started rolling up rice inside seaweed using bamboo sheets. They'd preserve the rice with vinegar, salt and black pepper for the long hike to school ahead. Making danmuji, a preserved radish pickle, my family would add it to the center along with spinach and, if they had it, beef. In the 1950s, kimbap was a luxury that wasn't eaten every day. Kimbap was taken to school for athletic competitions and to the mountains when hiking. Now, you can buy kimbap readymade at the Korean grocery store, often with cooked egg, crabstick and some kind of veggie (usually carrots, radish pickle or spinach). It still makes a great fast, savory snack or small meal that's easy to transport. Sometimes, Korean grocery stores have a small cafe. If they do, head there to find the freshest kimbap readymade on the counter or sometimes made to order. It's often also sitting on a shelf in an aisle or near the registers.

Instant Jjajangmyeon noodles. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Jjajangmyeon

Jjajangmyeon was created by Chinese immigrants in Incheon, Korea, as a version of zhajiangmian. A popular delivery food, this black bean sauce noodle dish is so satisfying while watching your favorite K-dramas, it has become part of a jokey Korean tradition called Black Day, when Korean singles celebrate their singledom by eating black-colored foods. Available both as an instant noodle and as a dish you cook at home with pre-packaged noodles and black bean sauce, there's nothing about jjajangmyeon that won't brighten a rainy winter evening. Check out this recipe to get your jjajangmyeon on.

Sea salt at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Sea Salt

South Korea has hundreds of farms where sea water is converted to pure white crystals of salt. Sea salt is raked from the water then piled into mounds and dried when the water falls to the bottom of the pile by gravitational force. Bagged and taken to warehouses, Korean sea salt from the Yellow Sea is famous for its nutritious qualities and excellent for making banchan, especially kimchi. My mother claims it works as a preservative to keep the kimchi crunchy for a long time. Prices aren't too shabby at Korean grocery stores, typically $5 to $7 for a large three-kilogram bag. Now all you need are your long pink Korean ahjumma gloves and a huge bowl for making banchan on your kitchen floor.

Bean sprouts at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Soybean Sprouts

You may have waltzed right by the soybean sprouts, unsure how you would cook them, but don't sleep on these. Soybean sprouts are one of the best deals in the grocery store, and they're healthy and easy to prepare. Nutty and nutritious on their own, when made into a Korean banchan salad, they taste hearty, bright, rich and piquant from the garlic. Grab a bag or two and get ready to have a delicious side dish in less than 10 minutes using this recipe. I tend to look for soybean sprouts that aren't blackened, bruised, chipped or damaged, but you'll need to wash and clean them carefully to remove the embryonic shell of skin on top of each sprout. Make sure to get the garlic, scallions, sesame seeds and sesame oil too (I happen to find the fish oil and chile pepper flakes in this recipe are optional).

Buchu (chives) at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Buchu (Korean Garlic Chives)

The versatile garlic chive, known as buchu in Korea and nira in Japan, is wider and darker than the Western common chive (Allium schoenoprasum). It's also flat rather than hollow. The taste is less oniony than common chives but it's more pungent. In fact, buchu's scent can aromatize an entire room while chopping. Because their taste is so garlicky, these chives can be substituted for garlic if the stinky rose gives you heartburn. Koreans use it mostly for buchu kimchi and buchu-jeon (pancakes). I like to chop them into fresh gremolata, pesto or aioli, or add them to cauliflower rice, twice-baked potatoes, leek soup, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, cheddar biscuits, casseroles, stir-fries, pastas and salads. They also blend well in traditional dill pickle brines and are fun when dried and kept as a seasoning for popcorn. If you love garlic, buchu is that versatile. These usually come stacked and bunched. Look for the crisper bunches that are fresh and unwilted, although it's not a deal-breaker if they're a little wilted as you'll most likely be chopping these up.

Kkaennip (Perilla leaves) at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Kkaennip (Perilla Leaves)

Kkaennip leaves are shaped similarly to shiso (the Crispa variety of Perilla frutescens), but taste very different, less minty and more savory and nutty. While I use shiso for desserts and cocktails, I prefer kkaennip for savory entrees and appetizers. Kkaennip can be eaten raw as a wrap for rice and meat, sliced thinly into garnish for savory dishes, pickled with red pepper and soy sauce, stuffed and rolled like grape leaves, or battered and deep fried. The leaves are hearty enough to stand up to almost any kitchen usage you can invent. In the grocery store, look for fresh, crisp leaves that are unbent and green.

Gochujang, doenjang and ssamjang are pastes that come from a common class of jangs, or sauces, and are sold in similar blackout boxes to keep them from being spoiled. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Gochujang, Doenjang and Ssamjang

Gochujang (in the red box) is a spicy chili paste while doenjang (in the tan box) is its milder soybean-centric cousin. Ssamjang (in the green box) is the intersection of the two, with some added flair. All three pastes are thick and hearty but gochujang makes for a spicier marinade for meats and for stews like kimchi jjigae while doenjang imparts a milder flavor to doenjang-jjigae, a more soothing and less fiery stew. Ssamjang is mostly used for ssam, the casual lettuce hand wraps you put together at the dinner table. You can add whatever garnish you want to ssamjang including extra sesame seeds, onions, scallions and garlic. Chung Jung One and Wang are reliable, tasty brands to look for.

Jook, a popular rice porridge, at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Jook

Jook is a rice porridge that's perfect for sick days, cold winter days and recovery from operations. It's also a great way to add vegetables and protein to picky kids' diets. You can buy jook in small, easily microwaveable cups for a quick snack or dinner with kimchi. Some varieties to look for: beef, chicken, mixed vegetable, abalone, pumpkin or squash, and mushrooms. You can add all kinds of greens and meats to the porridge. Try this video recipe by Maangchi, where she describes making jook for her father to help him heal after surgery.

Honey butter potato chips at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Honey Butter Chips

In 2014, Korea went absolutely nuts for honey butter chips and their popularity hasn't waned. You can still find the sweet, rich potato chips in most Korean convenience stores. What's not to love about a triple punch of sugar, fat and carbs? Haiti-Calbee, a popular snack food company, was the original brand to make them but dozens of imitators have sprang up. (You can even make your own version with this recipe). Look for them in the Korean snack aisle. If you can't find them, check your local deli, since Wise makes a knock-off version.

Banchan. (Charles Haynes/Flickr Creative Commons)

Banchan (Side Dishes)

If you're trying to eat healthy for but you're pressed for time, grab a rainbow assortment of these small plastic snap-lid containers and some microwaveable rice bowls. Banchan, those little side dishes served with most Korean meals, might include cucumber kimchi, seaweed, spinach, bean sprouts, radishes, fried anchovies, perilla leaves, pickled garlic, pickled peppers in soy sauce, seasoned lotus root and stir-fried eggplant. Grab some romaine lettuce and some ssamjang to make ssam wraps and you've got a complete dinner.

Danmuji (pickled radish) at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Danmuji

These yellow (and now, sometimes white) pickled radishes come in long, full pieces that can be sliced short and thin to eat with jjajangmyeon or sliced long and length-wise to go inside kimbap nori rolls. They're made by pickling the Korean version of daikon radishes with sugar, salt, rice bran, greens and fruits like persimmon peels. The taste of danmuji is tangy, sweet and salty, and the preserved ones from the store can last for weeks, if kept air-tight in the fridge. They make for a lovely snack along with other banchan.

Ssanghwa-cha, a tea prized for its supposed enhancements to virility, at a Korean grocery store. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

Ssanghwa-cha

This mysterious, dark tea is beloved by Korean men seeking vitality. Ingredients include traditional Korean herbs such as Japanese Peony, Rehmanniae radix, Angelica gigas, Cnidium officinale, Glycyrrhiza uralensis and cinnamon. The smell is vaguely ginseng-like and the taste is slightly bitter and medicinal but add a bit of honey or mix it with other teas such as daechu-cha (jujube tea) and it goes down easy. At the market, you can find ssanghwa-cha in packets or jars, already sweetened with jujube and/or sugar.