Which fish balls are the good fish balls?
June 24, 2010 9:37 AM   Subscribe

How do I shop in a Korean grocery store while not actually knowing any Korean? Many of the items have little to no English on the labels, and with a limited budget, I'm not quite willing to spend any significant amount of money on something I may find inedible (either being a flavor I don't like, or a complete lack of knowledge of proper preparation).

We like trying out lots of different "ethnic" foods and so far, Korean is my favorite. We've got a great Korean store near my wife's office, but we're frequently intimidated by simply not knowing what we're looking at. There's also the matter of figuring out the differences between similar products. We found a type of fish ball that we liked, but they don't seem to carry it any more. How do we figure out which ones are most likely to be similar to the ones we liked? Not knowing the language means I can't take notes and search the web when I get home either (which is my usual tactic for things at the Hispanic grocery stores.)
posted by Morydd to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There are lots of us on MeFi who live in Korea and can speak/read Korean, so maybe if you listed what you like, we can translate it for you and/or tell you what you should be looking for.
posted by canadia at 9:39 AM on June 24, 2010

Somebody there will certainly speak English. Why not just ask what you're curious about?

I also suggest picking up a Korean cookbook or checking out Maangchi's Korean ingredients index (she helpfully provides photos and hangul for commonly-used items so you can recognize things). With alien food cultures that use foods in ways unintuitive to you, it's helpful to have some sort of guide so you don't end up trying to make dinner out of random "interesting" stuff you picked up but doesn't add up to a coherent meal.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:42 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

At the Korean grocery store near me, most of the employees (and customers, for that matter) who are under the age of 30 were either born in North America or have lived here for most of their lives, and they're bilingual. I'd just approach a few younger employees (or customers) and ask in English until you find someone who can answer your questions.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:49 AM on June 24, 2010

I do this all the time! My favorite method is buying what might be good and taking pictures. That way you can go back later and figure out what's what. The only trouble is yes, you end up buying things you aren't always a fan of, but once you start keeping track and being able to match up words you'll quickly learn there aren't as many options as it seems.

For Korean specifically, learning hangul (the Korean writing system) is fantastic - it allows you to google around at home, and then apply your knowledge to what you find at the store. It's also helpful for transcribing package titles into Google Translate.

I found this flashcard site to be really helpful for learning hangul. If you have a mac, you can type in hangul by going to System Preferences / International / Input Menu and selecting something under Hangul (you want the Romaja ones - you'll be able to type everything in phoenetically). Otherwise you'll spend all of your time cutting and pasting from Korean news sites in order to get the right characters into translation sites...

If you're into finding things out about cooking ethnic cuisines in general, I'm going to go ahead and self link a project of mine. It probably isn't very useful to you since you have a store near you, but if you're interested in cuisines that aren't right next door it might be neat.
posted by soma lkzx at 9:52 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ask someone who works there, or ask another shopper. I'd avoid older Koreans, but anyone else is fair game. If I see someone who looks lost at a Korean or Chinese grocer, I help them out. Although I'm not Asian, because I look like I know what I'm doing when I go, people sometimes ask me questions. "Excuse me, but you look like you know what this is..." It's nice to help out.
posted by smorange at 9:53 AM on June 24, 2010

Oh, and do try asking. I'll vouch for the sinking feeling you get when you're met with a that bewildered I-don't-speak-English look but it definitely pays off!
posted by soma lkzx at 9:53 AM on June 24, 2010

You can also make a note of the brand name, which is often written in Roman letters or will at least have a distinctive logo. I don't know if it's just a state law, but here, things that are labeled in another language must have an English label added to them, and that usually has some kind of name for the item on it, either translated (in which case, it's frequently useless for asking store employees about) or Romanized (in which case, it can be very hit or miss till you learn more about the Korean language), and a list of ingredients (which would at least help you find a replacement), and the name of the manufacturer and importer. It can be hard to distinguish the item name from the ingredients sometimes, but it's usually there. If the item is something like a bunch of pumpkin soup (mmm) packets being sold individually but displayed in a box, the label is often on the bottom of the box instead of on the packets. (I sure hope that's not just a state law--if it is, then I <3>
If you're serious about Korean food in particular, the Hangul suggestion is probably a good one. Unlike Chinese or Japanese, there aren't Chinese-character-based components to worry about (well, usually). It's an alphabet, rather than a syllabary like kana, and it's supposed to be pretty easy to learn.
posted by wintersweet at 10:22 AM on June 24, 2010

At our local Korean grocery, often the packaged food will have the brand name non-hangul characters (eg. Pulmone, Wang). Often I can remember which brand I prefer.
Yes, ask! At our local, even the older Koreans with very limited English are usually so pleased that you like the Korean food that they try to help as much as possible (aside from some of the nastier ahjummas!).
And really, most of the food is pretty cheap anyway. Just experiment & have fun!
posted by nprigoda at 10:33 AM on June 24, 2010

It's an alphabet, rather than a syllabary like kana, and it's supposed to be pretty easy to learn.

Yeah! The reason it looks complicated is instead of having all of the characters in a row, like H E L L O, they were like "oh, well if we have H and E next to teach other let's put H on top of E and now it'll kinda look like a new character!" and things like that. Very much like ae -> æ
posted by soma lkzx at 10:37 AM on June 24, 2010

I usually study the english listing of ingredients assiduously. There's usually a sticker on the back with ingredients/nutritional info in english. If I were looking for a particular fish ball I would study that fish ball's ingredients and try to find a similar one in the freezer. They may just be awaiting shipment of that fish ball, too, so you might go back and find they have returned.
posted by hecho de la basura at 10:40 AM on June 24, 2010

Not knowing the language means I can't take notes and search the web

If you really like Korean cuisine it may be worth your time to at least learn the alphabet. It is an alphabet, which means that you can read it after a relatively short period of study--even if you don't know the meanings of the words you're reading.

Knowing the alphabet certainly helps me when I'm shopping for Korean ingredients, even though my Korean is still very basic and I don't know a lot of the words I'm reading. Even if you don't know what the word "ssamjang" means, for example, knowing that you're looking for "ssamjang" and being able to read containers to see if they say "ssamjang" is really helpful.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:41 AM on June 24, 2010

If the items have barcodes and you have a smartphone, you might be able to look up the english info on them by scanning the barcode. Google Goggles on Android phones is one such app. (Goggles also does translation, and they plan to cover Chinese and I would bet Korean too, but so far, it's only English, German, Spanish, etc.)
posted by zippy at 11:08 AM on June 24, 2010

I shop at the local Asian markets once or twice a week. I find that when multiple brands of the same item are available it's useful to try the one that has been bought the most by other shoppers. Happy eating!
posted by Allee Katze at 1:53 PM on June 24, 2010

Whoops, my less than three screwed up my post. I was trying to say that I love California state law for once, if it's the case that our state law is why we have English ingredient labels stuck on everything. :P Sorry for the fail there.

Also, this probably sounds painfully obvious, but in case you haven't tried it, you would be surprised how far you can get by searching for things like >>korean frozen fish balls with blue label
Sometimes you get lucky, and a homesick Korean-American who's left LA and is now, say, living in my previous hometown of Fayetteville, AR (where the Korean grocery store is the size of my living room) is posting online trying to find the name of it so she can order it, and someone has answered her. :p You'd never think such a search query would work, but sometimes it does. I also endorse asking, of course!

Finally, many of our local Japanese supermarkets have a weekly flyer that they send out. Ask the checker or information desk if they have a mailing list! The mailing list often prints the names of things in both romanization/English and Japanese. I have no idea if Korean markets are similar or if non-chain markets do the same, but it's worth finding out.
posted by wintersweet at 3:48 PM on June 24, 2010

I have used The Asian Grocery Store Demystified successfully at a couple of Asian groceries local to me. It describes how various foods are organized and how to interpret packaging to get a clearer idea of what's in it.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 10:55 PM on June 24, 2010

You can learn the Korean alphabet in an hour or so, at least summarily.

It's worth it.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:07 AM on June 25, 2010

I've had very good luck picking something up, looking around and asking how I cook it. I frequently end up chatting with 5 or 6 older women about how to cook various vegetables or whatever, with them making suggestions on other things I might try. I've done this in all kinds of ethnic markets, including Korean.

I'm a horrible introvert, so this is difficult, but I've found that especially older women are thrilled that the clueless Anglo is willing to try their food and very happy to tell me what to do with it. Occasionally, I get told that something is too hard or too weird, but that is rare.
posted by QIbHom at 7:59 AM on June 25, 2010

Like any other shopping trip, go in with a list and try to stick to it. Learn about ingredients through learning about recipes and dishes. A Korean cooking class would be great, as instructors will often bring packages to class for this very reason. Instead, do a Google image search for your ingredients before you leave, and do your best to match up when you get to the store.

If you just wander in to pick out some stuff that looks tasty, you might walk out with a high bill, but thats not any different from a regular grocery store. In general asian markets are priced much lower. Aside from some (totally worth it) $10 red bean ice cream, I don't think I've bought any items over $5 at an asian market. If I'm going to be spending lots at that kind of store it'll be from quantity, not price of individual items. Just be judicious.

Inadvertently, this is how I've found lots of help (some times too much help) at asian groceries.

Step 1: Start a conversation between your shopping partner and you about an ingredient you're looking to buy, "Hmm, where are the mushrooms?"

Step 2: Be surrounded by 3 or 4 older women who start questioning what you're cooking, why the mushrooms that recipe listed are the wrong kind, ("no those are the wrong kind!"), who then put things in your cart and set you on your way with her mother's recipe in hand.
posted by fontophilic at 9:09 AM on June 25, 2010

You could try "window shopping" at an online store in English, like http://www.koamart.com/
That one even has cooking instructions for a lot of the products.
posted by beyond_pink at 8:04 PM on June 28, 2010

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