Everything you need to know about South Korean Convenience Stores

dietary requirements in Korea

From how to work your way through the best Korean snacks and drinks on offer to clever hacks for anyone travelling with dietary requirements, here are our top tips for getting the most out of Korean convenience stores.

South Korean convenience stores are in a league of their own. So much more than the humble corner shop found in other parts of the world, they're both an amazing way to have a gourmet adventure on the cheap - you'll spot crowds gathered there all night long - and a great hack for anyone with dietary requirements looking to access parts of Korean culture that can be tricky otherwise.

From buying plant milks to take to your breakfast buffet, to mixing up your own cocktail concoctions, or packing tasty snacks into a hike-ready lunch box, here's our guide to working your way around a convenience store in Korea.

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What's so great about Korean convenience stores?

You might have heard about the wonders of Japanese convenience stores (especially if you've travelled with us), but the Korean version has a few tricks of its own up its sleeve. Before we dive into navigating the store's contents, here are some core components you'll find in any convenience store layout.

Seating

Most Korean convenience stores have tables, chairs and counters (either inside or out) where you can hang out and eat Korean food and snacks - from side dishes to sweet treats to generous full meals. As they're often open 24 hours a day across Korea, they're often packed long into the night with locals drinking and chatting.

Cooking stations

Korean convenience store cuisine goes far beyond the ready-to-eat kimbap rice rolls and other packaged snacks you might expect (more on those later). Almost every convenience store has a cooking station where you can heat up an instant meal, warm side dishes, cook (and customise) your own noodles, and make hot beverages. Ramen aficionados have turned convenience store cup noodles into an art form, adding ingredients like cheese slices, chicken, kimchi, soft-boiled eggs and even ranch dressing to create their perfect custom meal. The possibilities are endless.

Mix-your-own: Korea-style

The trend of mixing your own drinks in Korean convenience store has been sweeping social media recently. This is how it works: grab yourself a cup full of ice from the freezer, choose from a dizzying array of flavoured drinks, and mix your own cold beverage to have in or take to the beach/park/anywhere you like!

“During a trip to Busan, most of the bars on Haeundae Beach were packed one Saturday, so we popped into a nearby convenience store and had fun picking out our own cocktail combinations before taking them to sit and people watch on the beach.”

Rebecca Barry, South Korea Product Executive

Koreans have got very creative in this area, and you can find recipes for Korean convenience store cocktails all over the internet. Ingredients include everything from iced coffee to cold beer, cider, tomato juice, soju, fresh fruit, milk and yoghurt, so you can go wild with flavours.

When staying in a more remote hotel outside of Jeonju, our group descended on a small Korean convenience store for an impromptu soju tasting. We sampled mint (tasted a bit like toothpaste), strawberry (surprisingly quaffable) and chocolate (a bit of a flavor clash) soju. It was fun, and the flavours were all interesting- and some were utterly delicious!

Grant Ekelund, Travel Consultant, Broomfield, US.

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If you don't fancy mixing your own but are on the hunt for a tipple, convenience stores are nevertheless the place to go to get craft and imported beers at bargain prices. Big, plastic jugs of local beer are also on offer for just a few won, and you can even get your hands on decent whiskey and French wines.

Korean convenience store hacks for veggies and vegans

If you've travelling with dietary requirements - whether you're veggie, vegan, or gluten-free - eating in South Korea can seem daunting. Choosing snacks or meals at the always clean and trustworthy convenience stores is one way to be sure about what you’re consuming – it just takes a little knowledge and know-how to navigate.

“While no two convenience stores are organized precisely the same way, there are a few things you can expect. The milk, juices, and ready-to-eat meals will always be in an open refrigerator against one wall, there'll be a shelf dedicated to baked goods and bready snacks, and the crisps and cup noodles will be plentiful.

"Several items will have deals like 1+1 (buy one get one free) or 2+1 and the worker will not let you miss out on your freebie, even if you don’t want it!”

Meggie Yu, InsideAsia partner and local guide, Seoul

Navigating the refrigerator

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Although you won't find many English labels on packaged food, there'll usually be a picture of the main ingredients and description of the contents. Using translation apps to read labels is a quick and easy way to know what you’re getting.

Anything that needs microwaving will have a picture of a microwave, and the cooking time, and keep an eye out for deals (like the discounted coffee on the sandwich above).

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Another handy to grab snack is the samkak kimbap - rice and a tasty filling wrapped in seaweed. The labels follow the same pattern as sandwiches (if there’s meat, there’ll be a picture of the animal) and you follow the numbered steps to peel the plastic off.

If you’re on the hunt for protein, you’ll usually find fully-cooked and microwavable tofu in the fridge section, as well as packets of smoked, steamed, or baked eggs.

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Where to find alternative milks and beverages in Korean convenience stores

The fridges will be packed with ready-to-drink or single-serving beverages. For milk drinkers, Baskin Robbins Korea has become particularly creative with its sweet milk options (warning that these are dessert-level sweet!) and there'll always be a picture of the flavour.

If you don’t drink cow milk, you'll find a selection of almond, oat, and soy milks in most convenience stores. They often have much more English on them, but the word for soy milk is 두유 if you get stuck.

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Other good veggie and vegan snacks you'll find in Korean convenience stores

Anything not in the fridge will usually be on its own shelf, often in a dedicated aisle. You'll find cup noodles abound - each with a nutrition label which clearly shows in bold lettering the common allergens contained in each product, which makes it easy to quickly check ingredients before buying.

dietary requirements in Korea

The most common vegan options are vegetable ramen (야채라면 ) or potato noodles (감자 라면) - and you'll usually spot the word 'vegan' or 'vegetarian' somewhere!

Always check the nutrition label, as you might find chicken, beef, or pork stock in some brands - even if there's no meat. Things like squid snacks, too, can catch you out - they may seem great for pescatarians, but might actually be made using pork derivatives.

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"If you’re fed up with noodles, there’s a vegan-friendly rice porridge that you can get in any convenience store in any part of the country. It’s cheap, delicious, and ready in minutes."

Meggie Yu, InsideAsia partner and local guide, Seoul

Using Korean convenience stores to give you more choice

If you're travelling in South Korea and have dietary requirements, making a couple of nifty convenience store purchases can be a great way to access parts of the culture that may not cater to you otherwise. With a little extra knowledge and some good tips, you’ll be able to use convenience stores to your advantage – making sure there’s always at least something you can eat, no matter where you’re travelling or what part of the country you’re in. It’s all in the preparation – and remembering that dietary requirements are fairly uncommon in Korea, so a little patience is required.

We've always said you don't have to break the bank to have an amazing time in Korea. The Korean convenience store dining experience is just one of our hacks for travelling on a shoestring - as well as making Korean culture accessible for veggies, vegans, and travellers with other dietary requirements.

With that in mind, and a convenience store on almost every corner, you can enjoy the land of the morning calm on a full belly.

If you're looking for a Korean holiday on a budget, our Essential South Korea itinerary is a great place to start. Or, if you want to get under the skin of Korean food, check out our Culinary Korea trip idea, instead.

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