How to Eat Paleo in Korea

by Brian on March 3, 2014 in Paleo Diet,Travel

How to Eat Paleo in Korea

I recently moved to Seoul, South Korea with the intent of being here for at least a year. This is the story of my attempt to eat Paleo here.

Bringing your healthy eating habits to another country for months or even years at a time is very challenging. I’ve been to Seoul many times before and I speak Korean reasonably well, so it’s not even that the language barrier is a problem. Once you cross the border you just can’t walk into your local Whole Foods Market and find all the foods and products you’re used to.

While I’m all for trying new foods and adapting to the local cuisine, food sensitivities don’t magically disappear when you cross an arbitrary line on a map and toxic food additives don’t magically become healthy. The locals don’t always know best. Imagine what would happen if you were a foreign visitor trying to apply that logic in America where most people are eating the Standard American Diet.

But there is good news. With a little ingenuity and mindfulness, eating paleo in Korea is possible without breaking the bank on imports or farming it yourself. Even better news for those of us with wanderlust is that some of these tips can be applied to living in other countries as well.

Finding organic produce

plantlabelsFortunately, it is pretty easy to get organic produce in Korea. Most grocery stores carry a reasonable selection. And there is an easy labeling system. Just look for the apple logo.

I’ve also recently heard about a new CSA setup that caters to the expat community.

You can get most of the same common fruits and vegetables in Korea as you can in America. Though your options greatly increase if you expand to non-organic native produce. I personally don’t have any more or less concern about eating conventional Korean produce than I do eating conventional American produce (much of which comes from foreign countries anyway if you read the label).

Finding grass fed beef

meatlabelsFirst the good news is that meat from animals raised without growth hormones and antibiotics is widely available and clearly labeled in Korean grocery stores.

Finding pastured meats, however, is a bit trickier. My preferred method of buying grass fed beef and pastured pork in bulk from local farmers to keep costs down just isn’t an option in Korea.

You will no doubt hear rumors that all Australian beef is 100% grass fed. Unfortunately these rumors are blatantly untrue. At Costco they even go so far as to put a “Proudly Grain Fed” sticker on the packages of Australian imports. Sigh.

It seems there may still be some hope for New Zealand beef being 100% grass fed, but it is hard to find.

Until recently I just purchased whatever Australian and New Zealand beef I could find. Mainly for the much cheaper price than domestic beef, and also for the slim hope that maybe the cows spent more of their lives on pasture than the American imports that are definitely the CAFO meat that we have all come to know and avoid when possible.

However, I’m very pleased to say that I’ve discovered a grocery store in Seoul called Saruga Mart that carries a wide variety of grass fed beef at prices comparable to health foods stores back home (you can also shop Saruga Mart online). Outside of Seoul you might be out of luck as grassfed beef is only just now getting a toehold in Korea.

Pork, chicken, and other meats

As for pastured pork, forget about it. You won’t find it here. I just go with antibiotic-free pork from black pigs raised in Jejudo when available because it’s so tasty.

Finding chicken and eggs from hens raised without antibiotics is pretty easy. I’ve even seen pastured eggs showing up on the shelves. I am always slightly wary of poultry in Asia because of their constant epidemics of bird flu. Being free range even arguably makes chickens more susceptible because they come into contact with infected wild birds. That said, I regularly eat raw eggs and it hasn’t been a problem for me yet.

Lamb is not popular in Korea and I haven’t seen it very often outside of the foreigner grocery stores. I can’t really comment on the feed these lambs get as I don’t know where they come from. If they’re Australian and NZ imports they are probably grass fed. If they are raised locally my guess is they are fed rice silage like much of the domestic cattle. Possibly “supplemented” with soy protein blends.

If you love seafood you are in luck, because it’s plentiful, diverse, and cheap. I personally love me some oysters and I had a huge platter of them at a restaurant the other day for $6. Korea doesn’t seem to be big on labeling wild caught vs. farm raised. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wild caught label. If you don’t know for sure, I would just assume it’s farm raised.

*Know of any good sources for pastured meats in Korea? Please leave a comment below.

Fermented foods

One area where Korea really shines is fermented foods. There are a gazillion and one different kinds of kimchi, not just the spicy cabbage most Westerners think of.

If you tolerate properly fermented soy well, doenjang jjigae is a popular soup made from soy bean paste, a little red pepper, and vegetables (celiacs and the highly gluten sensitive should avoid doenjang unless it’s homemade by someone you trust as wheat flour may find its way into store bought stuff).

I also enjoy a drink made from fermented plums called maesil.

A Whole Foods-like grocery store in Seoul called SSG Food Market has an entire section filled with different fermented vegetables. One notable exception is sauerkraut, which, sadly, I have not found anywhere local.

Eating out

On average I would say eating out is slightly easier in Korea than in America, but it’s still a mixed bag.

On the plus side, traditional foods like whole chicken soup (samgyetang) and ox bone soup (seolleongtang) are relatively inexpensive and served almost as quickly as a fast food joint. Korean BBQ–sans questionable marinade–and boiled pork (bossam) are also amazing. And you have to love the free refills on vegetable side dishes that are typical at most Korean restaurants.

On the negative side fried chicken, noodles, Chinese-style dumplings, and pizza are the party defaults.

Supplements

As good as any diet based on eating healthy whole foods and avoiding toxic or allergenic foods is, some of us still want or need the occasional supplement.

You will not find what you are looking for in Korea. Like many a foreign executive in Asia looking for deodorant has discovered, often times you find that Korea simply doesn’t have the domestic equivalent of some items. And if you do find it, it will be 2x-10x the cost of what you would pay for it in America.

Fortunately, there is an amazingly good solution to this problem–iHerb. Just about any supplement you want, they have. Along with a wide range of other food and personal care supplies. And they will ship it to you in Korea for a measly $4, or FREE if your order is over $60.

Where to shop

Costco

That’s right, Korea has Costco too. And it is a total life saver for your meat eating habit, because you can go pick up some Australian or NZ beef for a fraction of the cost of domestic beef at your local grocery store. It’s still not as cheap as meat in America, but it will help you survive without breaking the bank. I also like to get raw salmon and frozen blueberries there.

website: www.costco.co.kr/eng/

Saruga Mart

If you are in Seoul, this is hands down the best health foods store. They carry a wide selection of grass fed beef cuts, grass fed milk, antibiotic and growth hormone free meats, organic fruits and vegetables, and other health foods. All at very reasonable prices.

website: http://www.saruga.com/

SSG Food Market

This is the place to go for a very Whole Foods-like experience. Coming down the escalator to the smell of fresh flowers in your face is just like going into the Columbus Circle Whole Foods in New York City. SSG has a great selection, but you definitely pay a premium for shopping here.

website: www.ssgfoodmarket.com

Orga Whole Foods

There are several branches of this shop around. They carry organic produce and other odds and ends. Most of the ones I’ve been to have been little holes in the wall, but their many locations can often make them easier to get to. Orga is also one of the few places to carry goat milk, which I love.

website: www.orga.co.kr

WWOOF CSA

This is the first CSA in Korea. They are targeting the expat market and provide support in English. They also offer a Paleo-friendly option to exclude bread products from your shipments. I’m excited to try these guys out, but I haven’t had a chance to yet.

website: www.wwoofcsa.com

High Street Market

High Street Market is the most well known foreign food grocer in Seoul. They carry some grass fed beef and Anchor butter (made from the milk of grass fed NZ cows) which is the only butter I would buy here. Frankly, I’m not that impressed with their selection, but if you absolutely need a fix for something American that you can’t find anywhere else they might have it here.

website: www.highstreet.co.kr

iHerb

iHerb is an online store based in America and one of the best kept secrets of foreigners living in Korea. You won’t get your fresh fruit and meat here, but they have an enormous selection of supplements, dried foods, condiments, and personal care products. Things I’ve bought from iHerb include various items such as sardines, dark chocolate bars, trace mineral drops, camu camu powder, toothbrushes, tomato sauce, and vitamin k2. It only costs $4 for shipping to Korea, or shipping is FREE on orders over $60. Packages are typically delivered here in only 3-4 business days. I really don’t know how they do it, I can’t say enough good things about iHerb.

COUPON: The URL below will not only take you to the iHerb website, but give you $5 off your first order or $10 off if your order is over $40. Alternatively you can put in the coupon code LJL783 at checkout.

website: www.iherb.com

iCOOP

This is another popular online store that sells many organic and natural products. You’ll need to know Korean and possibly have a Korean friend with a resident registration number number to use this site. I haven’t tested it to see if it will accept a foreigner registration number yet–something Korean websites are notoriously bad at.

website: www.icoop.or.kr

*Do you know of any other great paleo food sources in Korea? Or are you facing any Korean paleo challenges? Leave a comment below.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Rumyana March 10, 2014 at 5:33 am

You do realise that deonjang jiggae is not gluten free, right? It’s almost impossible to find gluten free soy sauce in Korea. The red pepper sauce (gochujang) also has gluten most of the time. It’s not a problem for those who don’t have issues with gluten but for people with celiac it’s crucial to know.

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Brian March 10, 2014 at 5:52 am

Tradition homemade doenjang does not include wheat, but you’re right that all bets are off when you’re at a restaurant or buying it at a grocery store.

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Liese October 22, 2014 at 8:29 pm

Even the Traditional Gochujang will have Gluten, you have to search and ask..

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Brian October 30, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Yes, you should certainly never assume it’s gluten free without asking.

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Joy March 13, 2014 at 8:07 pm

I loved reading this post!! It really did a great job in explaining the different available options and your own thoughts about them. And it does suck that meat in Korea is expensive! I am Korean myself and while I do not live in Korea I love making “paleo-fied” Korean meals in California. Of course my favorite is Korean bbq! I mean c’mon, how much more paleo can you get?! haha.
I am super glad that you seem to really enjoy the food in Korea and even more kudos to you for embracing all the different types of Korean Kimchi! Good luck and thank you again for writing this!

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Melanie March 13, 2014 at 11:26 pm

I live in New Zealand and yes NZ cows and sheep are 100% grass-fed. My neighbour is a beef farmer, when there isn’t enough fresh grass his cows get hay!!!! No grain. :0) I think dairy cows get some grain or other feed though.

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Brian March 13, 2014 at 11:31 pm

I’m jealous. NZ beef is sparse around here lately. It’s been mostly Aussie beef that has a big “Grain Fed” logo stamped on it.

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Bren March 15, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Yes, I was going to say: Not all Australian meat is grass-fed. And even if it does say grass-fed it’s usually grain-finished.

Australia isn’t exactly one big meadow. 🙂

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Schmidt March 14, 2014 at 7:35 am

Thanks a bunch! Been here a while and discovered Costco but the others are a help. Did you have any luck in the Itaewon foreign markets?

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Brian March 14, 2014 at 10:22 am

High Street Market that I mentioned is in Itaewon. Frankly I didn’t find much at the foreign markets I couldn’t get elsewhere or cheaper on iHerb. Sometimes they can special order stuff if there’s something in particular you need.

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Petra March 14, 2014 at 10:39 am

Annyeong haseyo! Brian, this is a great post. I lived in Korea for 1 year before I turned Paleo and although it took me a while I fell in love with their food and I miss it a lot. Living in Brussels now, I found quite authentic Korean restaurant here for my dose of kimchi. That stuff is addictive!

I went to Korea for a conference couple of months ago, already being fully Paleo and despite the “secret ingredients” you described, I found it quite easy to eat out, enjoy Korean food and stay 95% Paleo. 5% saved for the hidden stuff. Honestly, regarding secret ingredients, our caffeteria is doing much worse than Korea although it pretends to be super healthy and easy for Paleo ppl.

Enjoy your stay in Korea to the fullest! Its a great country to explore!

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Phil S March 15, 2014 at 5:10 am

Funnily enough the CostCo stores in Australia (yeah they opened over the last few years) advertise all their beef as being proudly Grain Fed .. sigh. Our supermarkets don’t label the beef either way, although the German entrants Aldi supermarkets have a line of Australian beef that is labelled ‘grass fed’ and the rest is grain fed.

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karina June 3, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Yay! There’s someone else paleo in korea. Was beginning to think i was the only one, haha.
Where is SSG? Ive never heard of it before.

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Brian June 4, 2014 at 12:12 am

Chungdam, see SSG homepage link above.

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Pat August 7, 2014 at 1:44 am

Great post, thanks!
Sorry to tell you but here, in Australia, most beef, lamb, pork, chicken etc is grain, antibiotic etc. fed. Grass fed is sold in organic shops (and occasionally in supermarkets but you’d want to be careful).
Has anyone had Paleo/AIP experience in Singapore? (We’re going to be there for two weeks in November and I’m a little concerned … )

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Brittany December 4, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Hey Brian! Great post, thanks!

I’m curious about your take on the school lunches. I am also teaching in Korea and, so far, my lunches have been pretty decent in terms of paleo guidelines….except for the days when the only meat option is fried :(. I always wonder about how much of it is traditionally prepared and how much of it is out-of-the-box store-bought stuff too…which is typical of American school lunches. I also wonder if there is MSG and other ingredients. Koreans keep telling me that I will “know” when there is MSG in food (i.e. be able to taste it)..but really, I haven’t been able to tell. Thoughts? I’ve wanted to discuss the school lunches with friends but none of them share paleo views on food.

Thanks!

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Brian December 5, 2014 at 3:08 am

All I can really say is that school lunches are typically sourced from third party distributors, so if you can find out the company that supplies your lunches you might be able to make some inquiries. Unless confirmed otherwise, I’d just assume the same junk additives are present. Personally I can’t identify MSG by taste, so I’d be skeptical about that too.

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Jessica March 14, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Were you able to find grass-fed butter other than high street market ? I have seen a few posts that it is carried at e-mart? Thoughts?

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Brian March 14, 2015 at 8:53 pm

Hi Jessica, I buy Anchor butter (and cheese) online at cheeseparty.co.kr. The website is all in Korean, though they do advertise customer care for foreigners which I’ve not looked into. It comes shipped in a styrofoam box with ice packs. The packaging is not as enviro-friendly as I’d like, but it’s the only reasonably convenient way to get it where I live.

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yun choi May 4, 2015 at 10:27 am

i left a comment in korean and this happened lol

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Brian May 4, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Yeah, sorry. My blogging software doesn’t do well with foreign languages. It converts it all to question marks. Someday I will figure out how to fix that. Perhaps you would care to post again in English?

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LaKisha June 10, 2015 at 5:02 pm

Great post! I am just beginning to explore Paleo and this was very helpful!

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Shawn Jonghyuck Jung August 4, 2015 at 11:40 pm

This post was helpful, thank you Brian.

BTW, the fried chicken cannot be avoided in party or other social situation in Seoul. So I order an oven-baked chicken box from Gub-Neh Chicken if I have to prepare one. It’s better than having chickens fried in Soy/Canola oil. But be ware of the accompanied chili sauce, full of high-fructose corn syrup.

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Hannah September 20, 2015 at 2:39 am

Thank you for writing this post – I have been growing more frustrated by e-mart and Lotte mart weekly! I hoped learning to understand Korean would yield organic produce but nope, they just don’t carry it in my town. One thing I would say for anyone who, like me, is living outside of Seoul – I spent part of my life working on cattle stations in NW Queensland, and even if the beef is labelled ‘grain fed’, it’s extremely likely that that’s just been the very end of the animal’s life. The stock graze bushlands and scrub, all natural. In times of food shortages they are given lucerne hay, and in an emergency, liquid molasses. The stock I worked with rarely went to feed lots for bulking on grain, and we were grazing in some of the harshest terrain Australia offers. If they go, it’s the last stop before the abbatoir. So if you have to buy grain-fed.. Buy Australian and don’t beat yourself up about it. There’s goodness in that beef!

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