10 Groceries Korean Grandmas Always Have on Hand

published May 2, 2022
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Spicy Korean Pork Belly
Credit: Lauren Volo

I grew up surrounded by kids who seemed to always go to their grandma’s house. As a Korean immigrant kid in Connecticut, I could not afford such a luxury on a regular basis. Trips to my grandma’s house in Korea were a bit less frequent (read: four summers). But just because they were rarer occasions for me doesn’t mean my memory bank of delicious home-cooked meals with that special halmeoni touch is small.

My maternal grandmother more than made up for lost time with endless pots of kimchi jjigae and banchan spreads fit for the royal Korean courts. (She’d serve us so much food, I always wondered how her skinny-legged dining table could hold all of it.) Plus, I was fortunate enough to have grandmothers in my community in Connecticut who took me in, providing me with a taste of home in a context where they only had access to a small Korean grocery store, which paled in comparison to the illustrious, open-air markets I saw my halmeoni shop at back in Korea up until her passing. 

I reached out to my childhood best friend’s grandmother, whom I was lucky enough to consider a grandmother figure while I was growing up, to learn more about the groceries she finds essential in her everyday Korean cooking. And because I was truly hungry for knowledge, I enlisted the help of Caroline Shin, a New York City-based Korean American food journalist and the founder of Cooking With Granny, a popular YouTube video series honoring the culinary legacies of immigrant grandmothers. She graciously provided me with a glimpse into the pantry of her mother, who just so happens to be an excellent cook and a grannie to Caroline’s toddler. Here are the ten groceries Korean grandmas are almost never without. 

Credit: CJ

1. Gochujang 

A foundational ingredient in a plethora of dishes, Korean grandmothers will have at least one big tub of gochujang stocked in their pantries at all times. Most notably gochujang appears in dollops on bibimbap, cloaked around spicy marinated meat and seafood stir-fries and hotpots, or in pots of water to make an instant soup broth. My friend’s grandmother placed small amounts of gochujang in a saucer with a little sesame oil on the tables at barbecues she hosted when we were growing up. Caroline says her mom also uses it in her ssamjang ssamjang, and grilled or pan-fried chicken or pork, as it makes the meat taste very good. 

Buy: CJ Foods Gochujang Hot Pepper Paste, $3.59 for 500g at Yami

Credit: Mother In Law's

2. Gochugaru

When they want to round out gochujang’s heat with a slightly different spice characteristic or add heat into a recipe without introducing moisture, grandmas will reach for their bottles (or zip-top bags) of gochugaru. According to Caroline, her mom uses gochugaru as a spicy base for kimchi or spicy accent to namul and soups.

The contrast between fine and coarse-grind gochugaru is similar to that of fine and flaky salt, and knowing that there’s a time and place for both will help you cook like a smart Korean grandma. Coarse is the most versatile and used in soups, kimjang (the process of kimchi making), as a seasoning for banchan, and more. My friend’s grandmother says she’ll use the finer grind when she wants to achieve spicy meals with a smooth finish, both in color and texture. I learned from her, as well as my own grandmother, to add fine gochugaru into my tteokbokki sauce. 

Buy: Mother In Law’s Gochugaru Korean Chili Flakes, $8.99 for 3.25 ounces at Umamicart

Credit: Sempio

3. Ganjang 

A tablespoon or two of this Ganjang, or soy sauce, carries the potential to take a soup, sauce, or marinade from wow to DAEBAK, a Korean phrase we break out of the glass only in the event of experiencing something outrageously good. In varying amounts, grandmas trust it for seasoning many dishes, like namul, miyeokguk, dipping sauce for mandoo, and jeon.

Buy: Sempio Soy Sauce, $10.99 for 930ml at Amazon

Credit: Umamicart

4. Thick Cuts of Meat 

Fat equals flavor is a universal truth — and no exception among Korean grandmas. Caroline tells me her mom will use thick cuts of beef as a driving force for flavor and substance in many jjigae and soups like beef radish soup. The very first ingredient my own grandmother added into the pot when she made kimchi jjigae was a gorgeous heap of samgyupsal, or pork belly. 

Buy: Pork Belly with Skin, $9.99 for 1.5 pounds at Umamicart

Credit: Mercato

5. Kongnamul

Kongnamul, or soybean sprouts, are a very popular Korean produce item. Like Caroline’s mom, people will make soybean sprout soup for breakfast every morning because it’s seen as healthy and imparts a nice, clear taste. The sprouts are used to make banchan, too. 

Buy: Soybean Sprouts, $2.99 for 1 pound at Mercato

Credit: Weee!

6. Asian Pears

Not only do Korean grandmas cut these up for their kin to eat unadulterated, but the crispy yet juicy, sweet and syrupy asian pear is also used in many of their kitchens as a meat tenderizer. 

Buy: Ever Hills Korean Singo Pears, $8.99 for 3 pears at Weee!

Credit: Amazon

7. White Onions

One of the takeaways from my conversations with grandmas was that aside from some specific ingredients, what makes up their cooking arsenal are items one will find at their neighborhood grocery store. Looking at it now, I remember the items my own grandma procured from those open-air markets in her town of Gwacheon were staples across many cuisines: fresh fish, meat, leafy greens, fruit, a big bag of white onions. Along with green onions (more on that below) and garlic, onion goes into everything Korean grandmas make. 

Buy: White Onions, $1.99 for 1 pound at Amazon

Credit: Target

8. Green Onions 

Whereas white onions in a soup or stir-fry provides a sharp, allium bite, green onions are often added into the mix because they have a softer, sweeter flavor. You can find flat batons of green onions woven with flour and eggs in a hot stack of pajeon, or green onion pancakes, which are especially great on a rainy day! The pitter-patter of thick rain drops triggers a pavlovian response, calling for the sizzling sounds and aromas emanating from jeon cooking on a hot pan. 

Buy: Green Onions, $0.99 for 5.5 ounces at Target

Credit: Target

9. Garlic

“My daughter tells me that Korea is one of the top consumers of garlic,” says Caroline’s mom. “I believe it. Garlic makes everything taste better.” One thing you typically won’t find in a Korean kitchen, however, is whole bulbs of garlic. It’s either peeled, minced, or both!

Buy: Spice World Minced Garlic, $2.69 for 8 ounces at Target

Credit: Yakult

10. Yakult 

These adorable probiotic yogurt drinks don’t serve much of a purpose in the Korean grandma’s pantry in the grand scheme of things, other than to soothe a cranky grandchild in a tired or hungry rage … not that I speak from experience!

Buy: Yakult Nonfat Probiotic Drink , $3.29 for 5 yogurts at Weee!

Don’t see your grandma’s grocery staple above? Tell us about it in the comments below!