I’ve spent the last two weeks in Korea visiting family, checking out the sights, and of course, shopping. With a favorable exchange rate (about 1,113 won to a dollar) and cheap prices, Korea has long been known as a shopper’s paradise.
While there are a variety of stores — from Wal-Mart to high-end European designer shops — the street markets are the most interesting. I had the opportunity to visit markets in the country’s three major cities: Seoul, Gwangju and Busan. Each open-air market was a hodgepodge of vendors, from traditional storefronts to tables set up in the middle of the street to items laid out on the sidewalk.
Clothing, handbags and shoes were plentiful in Seoul’s Namdaemun market. A word of caution: Because Koreans are for the most part thinner and shorter than Americans, large sizes are hard to find, so be sure to try things on before you buy. (An old flea market trick for finding pants that fit without trying them on: Wrap the waistband around your neck. If it fits comfortably, the pants usually fit around your waist.) I picked up a fox stole for 80,000 won, which is about $72. I also picked up a wool suit for my husband in Gwangju for about $80.
The markets are centered on food in Gwangju and Busan. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound, as well as herbs and hot Korean red peppers. You’ll find unprocessed sheets of seaweed, pressed together and dried, still smelling like the ocean. There are boxes of salt-cured and dried seafood, from tiny fishes and shrimp to mussels. Taste-testing is encouraged.
If you’re squeamish about where your meat comes from, it’s best to avoid the markets. Giant pigs’ feet and whole heads are on display. Live chickens and ducks sit in cages while all varieties of fresh seafood swim in tanks or lie on beds of ice.
You won’t find anything similar here in the sheer range of stuff sold there, but Central Arkansas is home to several Asian groceries, including Sam’s Oriental Store (3704 S. University, 562-2720). Sam’s has been around as long as I can remember — one of my first memories is getting my fingers mashed in the store’s front door.
Over the years, the market has expanded its offerings to reflect the growing diversity of Little Rock’s Asian population. Once predominantly Korean and Chinese, Sam’s now carries foodstuffs for Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
For those who’ve adopted a healthier lifestyle, there are bargains. For instance, 32 ounces of soymilk can cost around $3 at health food stores; the same amount is $1.49 at Sam’s. Tofu is 99 cents to $1.39. A 20-ounce container of pine nuts is $17.99. There’s also produce you’re not likely to find at Kroger, such as soybean sprouts, broccoli rabe and fresh bamboo shoots. MSG is sold by the pound and there’s a whole aisle devoted to the many varieties of Ramen, from Cup Noodles to a Korean favorite, chajang myun.
In the market for hot drinks? A pound of Jasmine tea is $4.49 and a 15-ounce can of Cafe du Monde coffee is $2.99. Sam’s also carries Asian ceramics, dinnerware and utensils.