Buy local goods online? You have to talk the talkThree months ago my plan to surprise my brother-in-law living in New York City worked out nicely. On the morning of his birthday, a bottle of Dom Perignon and flowers I had ordered arrived at his door, and over the phone he raved about how perfect the arrangement was. Hearing him, I thanked online shopping services -- so handy and so effective.
But my sister had different things to say: "Why didn't you send us something from Korea?" Good question. To her "something from Korea" meant ginseng products or green tea, or maybe more.
So I looked into Korean online shopping Web sites which sell everything "Made in Korea." With a free membership, I found I could purchase ginseng in every form available, from ginseng extract to ginseng kimchi. And type in anything like green tea, caviar, digital cameras, hiking boots, mobile phone cases, and it's available online.
But this is not particularly good news for non-Korean speakers. If you cannot read and understand Korean, buying through Korean Web sites is virtually impossible. You need to either be fluent in Korean or have a Korean friend assist you from the time you begin searching until you actually receive the product and find it satisfactory.
I also checked English Web sites to see if I could buy Korean products. I punched in "ginseng" and got many products: ginseng energy pills, ginseng bath oil, ginseng lipstick and a CD titled "Ginseng." The concepts were far from the authentic Korean elixir, though. After one solid hour of searching, I got tired and lost interest.
If you're planning to send your distant -- but close at heart -- friends and family something from Korea, you're better off going off-line, then mailing it via the post office parcel service called EMS. The price is fairly reasonable, and it's convenient. For example, you can go to any post office and buy a standard box, wrap it there and send it. A parcel to the United States weighing between 500 grams and 1 kilogram costs 27,000 won ($22), and it takes three or four days to arrive. I avoid Federal Express and DHL because they tear open every package to be sure you're not sending a bomb or cocaine. And they often charge you or the recipient a hefty tax. When you're trying to please yourself and your beloved, the reckless FBI-style searching, interrogation and penalty-charging can be devastating.
So what are good buys in Korea?
-- Ginseng products: For starters, try ginseng tea or candies. They are inexpensive and interesting. For the health-conscious but unadventurous, honeyed ginseng slices can be great, as even the most fastidious palates can enjoy the taste and health benefits from a few bittersweet chews. Serious ginseng lovers will appreciate ginseng extract. Its tiny black bottle looks like it holds a magic potion, but it can be costly.
The latest, award-winning invention is ginseng chocolate that comes in a brown jar. The container is a miniature replica of the Korean traditional earthenware typically used to store pickles and sauces. A jar, the size of a large grapefruit, has 15 pieces of chocolate, but the fragile container alone weighs about 1 kilogram. It's a nice, bulky gift that's sweet inside.
You can get ginseng products in major department stores, Namdaemun's markets, the Itaewon shopping district and specialized ginseng stores downtown. A jar of ginseng chocolate costs about 24,000 won, a box of sliced ginseng 25,000 won, a box of ginseng tea 10,000 won, a jar of ginseng extract 85,000 won.
-- Green tea: The best tea, from the south of Korea, is called ujeoncha, literally meaning "tea made before the rain." It's made from delicate young leaves picked only once a year in the late spring, right before the monsoon season. The tea has great aromatic depth, and can be brewed a number of times; the fourth brew tastes the best.
The most inexpensive green tea costs 4,000 won for a box of teabags. A 100-gram box of gourmet tea costs 40,000 won and up. Tea is the easiest thing to ship; it weighs almost nothing.
-- Korean wine: The popular rice wine Baekseju can impress wine drinkers outside Korea. Made from healthful contents -- sweet rice and 10 kinds of medicinal herbs such as licorice and ginseng -- this mild wine (13 percent alcohol) goes well with most meat and vegetable dishes. A gold plum wine called Gold Matchsoon, in which you can see sparkling gold flakes, is an inexpensive gift that has a nice element of surprise. It tastes sweet, like Japanese plum wine, and the sparkles inside add a festive mood. A 300-milliliter bottle of Baekseju costs about 10,000 won. A 375-milliliter bottle of Matchsoon costs 6,500 won.
-- Leather garments: Leather products in Korea are high-quality and reasonably priced -- if you avoid department stores. And many clothes made for the local market don't fit Westerners well. Try Itaewon; its Underground Shopping Mall, next to McDonald's, and its shops on the main boulevard carry American-size leather garments. Most patterns come from American brand names such as Banana Republic, Gap and DKNY. While there, check out other specialties, like eel skin products. You can get a soft lambskin jacket for 100,000 won and up.
by Inēs Cho