Back in Canada, the USA or Australia this would seem like a pretty obvious topic right? I grew up in Montreal Quebec, Canada where all the produce is about 99% good quality. There are some grocery stores that have food that is on the verge of going bad, but those fruits and vegetables are always sold at huge discount and it’s very obvious that if you don’t eat them soon they will be rotten before you have a chance of freezing or saving them.
In South Korea, native English teachers can find themselves paying $5 for a bag of 5 apples and finding them with fuzzy white stuff 3 days later. Sad, but true. So how does one know where to buy good produce that is going to last at least a week, if not a few weeks in the fridge, on the counter or in our bodies (important, right?).
The best place to buy groceries is at a “Lotte” grocery store. Whether you’re buying the one in the basement of the department store, or the “Lotte Mart”, either way the food quality is going to be very good. And ironically, the prices are usually the cheapest at Lotte Mart because they deal with food in such a large volume. Lotte Marts are found throughout South Korea in Seoul, Busan and even Jeju.
Lotte mart quality is also very good. Say you buy a package of sesame seed leaves at a small local grocery store. You can’t keep them in the fridge for longer than 1 week before they go bad and you have to throw them out. On the other hand, is you buy them at Lotte mart you can expect them to last 2 and sometimes 3 weeks without going moldy.
In fact, almost anything in Korea that is preceded by the word “Lotte” in the title is of top-notch quality. Good thing too, since Lotte kind of sounds like it means “a lot”.
So where are the bad places? These are trucks that are on the side of the road with fruits and vegetables and insanely low prices. These places are not necessarily bad, but you have to pick your fruits and vegetables with caution. You also need to keep in mind the question: What are these foods not being sold in the grocery store? How did this seller get these, and why didn’t the big sellers pick them up?
Stay away from open-air fruit stands unless a Korean has recommended the foods’ quality to you. The food OK, but questionable. Strawberries for $2? Well, there’s a reason they’re being sold that cheap and the vendor is in a truck: so he can get the heck out of here after he sells out and everyone has flying diarrhea.
Keep away from markets with high turnover rates. A market where vendor change every month is not a good sign that the quality is good. Usually vendors have to be careful because word of mouth spreads quickly. In these markets the quality can be very good. Just to be sure though, take a walk through the market near your house and then go back after a month and see if the same places are still there. Go back after another month.
You’ll find these kinds of markets in gu’s and dongs like Bangi or Gangnam. However they’re usually on the side of the road. As a personal rule, I’ve found that the further away from down you get, the likelier it was grown under acceptable circumstances and is healthier.
Keep an eye for many grocery stores too. It’s not uncommon to buy produce at a grocery store and have it rotting rapidly due to a low of quality farm. Unfortunately with grocery stores that hold crappy produce you need to try it out and see what happens.