Convenience stores act as life support for many Koreans. On every city block, their doors welcome cold and hungry refugees every hour, day or night.
Got problems? They’ve got solutions.
Thirsty? Grab some water (or a tallboy). Dying phone? Grab a portable battery or charger. Long fingernails? Grab a pair of nail clippers in the toiletries section.
Check out our treasure map to nutritional wonders found in Korea’s convenience stores.
From gig to desk jockeys, convenience stores supply the time-crunched workforce with a variety of prepackaged meals. These offerings can complete a balanced-ish breakfast, lunch, dinner, or in-between.
Here are some highlights.
So you’ve chosen and paid for your cup of noodles (and sodium). Now what? Look for meter tall towers of cylindrical metal. These aren’t drink dispensers.
Peel back the corner to your cup ramen and take out the flavor packet. Now, slip the dispenser nozzle inside and let loose a torrent of steaming water. Use your chompers to tear the flavor packet. Sprinkle and mix. A few minutes later, your sub-₩3,000 lunch is ready.
The palm sized snacks follow the same recipe. Rice, veggies and meat wrapped in seaweed.
Look at the top of the triangle. There’s a tab. Peel it back. The cellophane strip will follow pre-cut lines, presenting the crispy seaweed shell.
Below the gimbap and crustless sandwiches, you’ll find plastic wrapped trays. In the west, they’re called lunchboxes. In Korea, they’re known as dosirak (도시락), what wives and mothers prepare for their familial workers.
Inside a typical convenience store dosirak, you’ll find a plot of rice, a main meat dish, and various banchan (side dishes; 반찬). These side dishes might include kimchi, jeon (전), sliced egg roll, and more.
Beware! Some lunch boxes have spicy surprises.
Convenience stores also serve up hot bar. However, they don’t earn the ‘hot’ title like their flame-licked cousins.
In the open refrigerators hang vacuum sealed sticks of meat. There are many unique flavors to try. Quattro cheese. Garlic sausage. Tteokgalbi (떡갈비; spicy meat).
Boiled Eggs & More
Presented as a pair in a plastic box, the eggs come in a variety of textures and flavors. The core recipe? Same. Take an egg. Boil it in water. Package it up.
You thought the fun ended there? Oh, you’re wrong. Fill your gullet with some pre-packaged hamburgers. Pop it into the microwave and nuke them for a few minutes.
And want a more conventional approach? Convenience stores stock sandwiches, both familiar and unfamiliar. They have egg sandwiches. Ham and cheese. Chicken. Even strawberries and cream. Simple. Delicious. Crust-less.
Got a frigid hamburger? Chilly bowl of rice? Cold plate of mandu? Convenience stores, once again, save the day!
Most convenience stores have a microwave tucked away somewhere. In smaller stores, they might be behind the counter. Larger stores center their food reactor in a small kitchenette, available for all customers.
If you aren’t sure about how to heat your food, check the back of the packaging. You’ll see a microwave or circle with colon separated numbers (01:15). You guessed it. Minutes and second.
Pop it in. Beep, beep, beep. Chow down!
Food is culture. And every culture is unique. What isn’t different? Junk food.
Korea’s junk yard haul may surprise. It may horrify. It may inspire awe. So dig in! You’ll find something to satisfy your sweet tooth or salty tongue.
Chips & Crisps
The chips (or crisps) in Korea go a little beyond your standard potato chip. How exotic are we talking? How about shrimp flavored chips? Chips sprinkled with crushed peanuts? Interested in squid and peanuts? (Not actually squid.)
Choco Pies & Peperos
Peperos (빼빼로) boast by far the best marketing team of any sweet treat. Come to Korea on November 11th (a.k.a. Pepero Day) and you’ll find sweethearts exchanging boxes of these chocolate covered cookie sticks. Why November 11th? 11-11. Four pepero sticks in a row.
Digets (다이제) are popular semi-sweet digestives in Korea. Chocolate coats one side. The other side goes bare. They go great with a hot cup of coffee.
Pastries & Bread
Like fresh bread? Tucked into the ends of aisles, you’ll often find a tiny bakery. You’ll find plastic packaged cream-filled delights, like chocolate topped doughnuts and frosted cookies.
A common sight is a sweet roll filled with red bean paste. Red bean? For parts of east Asian, red bean is their chocolate, a bitter plant infused with a ton of sugar.
Korean’s also love their roll cakes. They bring these cream wrapped sponge cakes to get-togethers and work celebrations.
Beware, the bread selection isn’t straight from the oven. But they aren’t week-old doorstops. The stock rotates out every evening, in every morning.
Korea developed from hunger to Mercedes in record time. However, breakfast options lag. Most mornings, Koreans dine on a bowl of home cooked rice. Waffles and flapjacks are desert options at cafes.
If you want a quick carb load to start your day, visit a convenience store the night before. Grab an armful of pastries, a couple cartons of milk, and maybe a can of coffee. Bring them back to your motel, throw them in the mini-fridge. When you wake, stuff your face.
It’s not the healthiest option. But it’ll get you on the road fast.
Remember being a kid? No. Well, swing by the candy aisle. You’ll find many new and old treasures to dig up long forgotten memories.
The Spanish confectionery Chupa Chups is another candy fixture. Their lollipops grabbed Korean children’s imagination. You’ll find trees with lollipop limbs on many checkout counters.
There are over 40,000 convenience stores in Korea. More open every day.
Find a nook, a closet, a spacious hole in the wall. Blink and a ‘New Store Coming Soon’ sign will appear.
Here are the ubiquitous chains.
Thirsty! Convenience stores stock their coolers with everything from Coke to strawberry milk. You can find something hydrating. Something to keep you up. And something to liven up the night.
Coffee, Tea & Herbs
Vita 500 Gold (비타500골드) is a popular vitamin C drink. The 500 shows the amount of vitamin C in this sucker: 500% your daily dose.
Summer here? Sun hot? Convenience stores giveth.
Find a freezer full of cups of ice in the drink aisle. Grab one. This is part one.
Nearby, you’ll spot a box filled with plastic pouches. They’re labeled lemonade, latté, grapefruit, and more. The sweet nectar inside is part two.
Pay first. Then, put the parts together. Rip the top off the pouch and pour it into your cup of’ ice. Voilà!
Wasteful? You bet. Colder than the refrigerated drinks? Marginally.
Milk & Yogurt
Got milk? Need milk? Which flavor?
Yogurt (요구르트) is beloved among kids from six to sixty. Everywhere you’ll find palm sized, foil topped bottles carrying sour yogurt shots.
For good or bad, alcohol’s fame burns bright in Korea. The trifecta of spirits includes beer (맥주; maekju), soju (소주), and makgeolli (막걸리).
In the early 20th century, western nations introduced beer to Korea. In less than a century, it burrowed deep into the culture. It’s a staple for any night out, company dinner, or picnic in the park.
The most popular beer is a domestic tallboy (500 ml) lager. But, with relaxed import laws, you’ll find more German, Japanese, and American brands at your local convenience store.
If beer is the foreign prince, then soju is the homegrown king. This humble rice liquor anointed Korea “one of the most hard liquor consuming countries on earth.”
Korea birthed soju in the 13th century after Mongols introduced distilling techniques. The old-school process involved distilling alcohol from fermented grains, like rice. This gave a 30-35% ABV rice liquor.
Today, companies tamed down the alcohol content. The rice spirit hovers around 15-18% ABV.
Many foreigners underestimate the power of soju. They think, “it’s only 17%. That’s like a strong wine.” Be nice. Leave a pillow in the storm drain. That’s where they’ll regain consciousness.
Most Koreans drink soju from shot glasses for a reason.
Makgeolli holds a special place in the alcohol pantheon. The cloudy rice wine is the oldest alcohol beverage in Korea.
In convenience stores, they come in opaque 750 ml bottles near the soju. Somewhat sour, somewhat sweet, makgeolli‘s ABV hovers somewhere between 6-9%.
You can also find makgeolli restaurants that serve a chilled, fresh brew in an open pot. Use a ladle to fill your cup and chow down on buchimgae (부침개), a fried, savory pancake.
Do you enjoy a fine portmanteau? Korea has lots. Handphone (핸드폰), or smartphone. Officetel (오피스텔), or office hotel.
Try this one. Soju (소주) + Maekju (맥주; beer) = Somaek (소맥).
Pour a little soju in a glass. Fill the rest with Cass. What do you get? Somaek, the favored Korean cocktail.
Some might think the flavor brings about the second coming. Some might say that it’s really the anti-taste. You can’t deny this … it’s Korean. Uniquely.