Holiday shopping, Korea-styleIf everyone on your shopping list is expecting something with Korean flavor, look no further. A jeweled ear coner? Red pepper chocolate? The very latest in slipper design? Tea sets, both traditional and casual? We’ve scoured the city and found something for everybody on your list. Go ahead, prove us wrong.
1. Red pepper chocolate
To clear up the rumors about gochu chocolate: This is not a slab of chili paste sandwiched between dark chocolate. First of all, gochu chocolate is less than 1 percent chili extract, and the ingredient used is not chili paste, but a few sprinkles of dried chili powder. So you can imagine it as something close to wasabi chocolate or paprika chocolate, which have become delicacies. Gochu chocolate is not terribly spicy, despite the shop clerk’s warning that consuming this whole box at once can burn your stomach. It has a stinging aftertaste, but that’s really about it; you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting the equivalent of chocolate dipped in gochujang. This is recommended more as a collectible than as a particularly remarkable food item.
Price: 8,000 won ($6.70), 15,000 won
Where: National Souvenir Center, Insa-dong; (02)735-6529
2. Ginseng candy, jellies, caramels
It would be a sin to be in Korea and overlook ginseng. Korean ginseng has gotten so popular that it’s a mystery why some manufacturer hasn’t come up with ginseng kimchi. Ginseng sweets have been around for some years now, and they are one of the best-selling souvenirs in Insa-dong. Compared to the notoriously expensive root, ginseng sweets are cheap, ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 won. They’re cheapest at supermarkets and discount stores, but souvenir shops in Insa-dong have a wider variety.
Price: 3,000-10,000 won
Where: Insa-dong, discount stores, department store basements.
3. Facial pack
Another ginseng product, and a big hit with Japanese tourists. They come in three different types ― seaweed, green tea and ginseng. In some stores, they come in gift packs with ginseng soap.
Price: 12,000 won (10 sheets)
Where: National Souvenir Center.
What a wallet may mean to Westerners, the seal means for most Koreans. It is a statement of identity, a vessel that holds your name. Seal engravers held a sacred position in society until digital seals were recently introduced. Some name advisers ― a kind of fortune-teller ― even claim that people experiencing trauma in their lives should change their seals first. Materials for stamps vary from jade to oak. Getting your seal done is simple: You give the engravers your name, and they engrave it on the bottom of the stamp. Most stores will give you a finished product on the spot, but handmade stamps might take up to three days.
Price: 10,000 won and up
Where: Myeongsindang Pilbang; (02)732-2880
This is a traditional liquor made of black raspberry. Bokbunja goes well with seafood dishes, grilled eel in particular. It’s red in color, and it tastes very much like wine, unless you buy a lesser-quality variety, which can taste like cough syrup.
Price: 8,000 won and up
Where: National Souvenir Center, Insa-dong; (02)735-6529
6. Ear coner
Korea is almost certainly the first country to invent a jeweled ear coner. This elaborate silver instrument, with detailed macrame, is as fancy as it gets in the realm of ear coning, an activity most Koreans practice once or twice a month to remove ear wax. Unlike Q-tips, ear coners are used when the ear is dry. The instructions are simple: You insert the coner slightly into the ear, using the curled tip. Due to the risk of damaging the eardrum, it’s best to ask someone to do it for you. This is why the ear coner is often a symbol of intimacy.
Price: 30,000 won
Where: Hoam Art Museum Shop; (02) 750-7953
7. Italy towel
One of the masochistic rituals many Koreans like to perform once a month is visiting a public bathhouse and scrubbing their skin until it turns lobster-red. This small piece of bath towel is the scary instrument used during this ordeal by professional scrubbers, who usually charge 5,000 to 10,000 won for 20 minutes. It forms a small pouch for the scrubber to insert his hand into. The fabric is as coarse as sandpaper, so some pain can be involved when someone else is doing the scrubbing. Spa tours have become an extremely popular travel alternative among Asian tourists, and the magic is all in this little towel. Nobody is certain why it’s called an “Italy towel,” but rumor has it that the company that manufactured the first one imported the fabric from Italy.
Price: 2,000 won
Where: Traditional markets, the streets, department store basements
8. Jeju Samda Natural Air
Don’t argue that Koreans aren’t original. After all, they came up with Jeju Samda Natural Air, an oxygen spray that comes in a can. Jeil Jedang introduced the product last year, targeting people suffering from chronic headache, insomnia or indigestion, which covers just about everyone. The company argues that these problems largely result from a lack of fresh oxygen. Natural Air is compressed oxygen taken from a forest on Mount Halla, Jeju island, where, according to the company, the air has about four times more terpene ― a chemical that allegedly speeds up the metabolism ― as city air. Overseas travelers might have to declare this.
Price: 4,000 won
Computer games seem to have replaced just about all the traditional playthings available to Koreans. It was almost surprising to find this piece of wood in the corner of an Insa-dong store. Paengi is a traditional game played on New Year’s Day; you spin a round wooden top on its pointed end and flail it with a stick. Whoever spins longest is the winner.
Price: 3,000 won
Where: Insa-dong souvenir shops
10. Books about Korea
Books are increasingly considered an ideal holiday gift in Korea, which is why many bookstores have major sales this time of year. There are not a whole lot of English books on Korea, compared to Japan or China, but there are some. “Korean Erotic Paintings,” published by Art in Culture, a stunning collection of Joseon Dynasty erotic paintings, is a recommended coffee table book. “Korean Temples and Food,” a travelogue by a chef and photographer, is another. Seoul Selection is discounting some books and DVDs for the holiday.
Price: 45,000 won (“Korean Erotic Paintings”), 28,000 won (“Korean Temples and Food”)
Where: Seoul Selection, (02)734-9565; Artinus, (02)326-2326
Slippers are worn in Korean homes for reasons of etiquette, since most hosts expect guests to take their shoes off. These particular slippers have modern designs; they’re made from a type of silk, and the soles are wood. You can machine-wash them, though the fabric might wrinkle.
Price: 45,000 (men’s), 42,000 won (women’s)
Where: Som-ni; (02)725-2996
12. Silver spoons
The quality of spoons and chopsticks in Korea probably varies as much as the food. Silver ones rank at the top, and are often given at weddings. Some come with jade decorations on the handles. Some of the highest-quality, most elaborately designed silver spoons are sold in jewelry stores, and can cost up to 500,000 won a pair.
Price: 60,000 won and up
Where: Hoam museum shop (02)750-7953; Namdaemun
A jogakbo is a Korean quilt, and has many uses. It’s most often used to cover food on the table, but it’s also used as a placemat, as a tablecloth and to wrap various objects. Often it’s made from tiny rectangles of cloth sewn together. Traditionally the colors are bright, but modern designs have pastel tones; some even use gray, which is almost never used in a traditional jogakbo.
Price: 30,000 won and up
Where: Gana art shop, (02) 734-1020; Sense of Living, (02) 542-8431
14. Tea set
You can’t go wrong giving a tea set. Many tea admirers are strict about formality, and prefer to follow traditional rules with a full set (right), as in Buddhist temples. But for casual drinkers, the modern version (left), which comes with a strainer in the cup, would do fine. Many Insa-dong shops sell a tea cup and green tea in a package for a moderate price.
Price: 10,000 won and up (cup), 30,000 won and up (set)
Where: Dong Yang Da Ye; (02)723-7664
If you don’t know the tastes of the person you are giving a gift to, it’s usually a safe alternative to give hangwa, or biscuits. There are various kinds of hangwa, but most of them are made of rice, mixed with powdered nuts or herbs.
This was long considered an unfashionable gift, until Chuseok of this year, when it was reported that President Roh Moo-hyun had passed out hangwa as his holiday gifts to Blue House officials. In terms of quality, what you’ll find in Insa-dong is every bit as good as what’s sold in the food aisles in the basements of department stores.
Price: 5,000 won and up
Where: Sojeong Hangwa, (031)912-50
16. Japanese plum jam
Japanese plums are mostly eaten in Korea as pickles and in flavored tea. But they’ve become known as a highly nutritious fruit among health-conscious consumers ― they’re full of potassium and calcium ― and now there are special farms producing organic Japanese plums. Cheongmae Farm, a family-run place in Gwangyang, south Jeolla province, specializing in green plums, is one of them. Jams produced here are boiled down with honey and marinated for several weeks in traditional kilns. Their syrups go great with waffles, and can also be used to make tea.
Price: 5,000 won (280 grams)
Where: Hanaro Mart, Cheongmae Farm (061) 772-4066
17. Paper lamps
Popularized by Nobuki, a Japanese lighting designer, lamps made with mulberry paper have become an in-demand home accessory. While the artist’s own lighting collections are sold in local commercial galleries at excruciating prices, these humble lamps found in Insa-dong are relatively cheap. Besides the cool designs, another charm of a paper lamp is the density of its light. This particular design is very light, consisting of two separate parts that are easily put together. The top is an acrylic cube, the bottom is hardboard. Works with both 110 and 220 volts.
Price: 69,000 and up
Where: Urisegae; (02) 725-1216
18. Hyoja son
This is an ergonomically designed back scratcher. Traditional ones are made from bamboo or cheap woods, with a rougher curve on the end than this one has. Hyoja son, meaning “the hands of a devoted child,” are normally given to elders. This product is made from Zelkova wood.
Price: 100,000 to 120,000 won
Where: Som-ni; (02) 725-2996
Traditional sewing utensils were often an art form in themselves. A golmu, or thimble, is a piece of woven fabric a sewer wears to protect her fingers from being pricked by a needle. Leathers and thick fabrics are typical materials used for golmu. The one in the picture was handmade by a woman who has been specializing in making them all her life. They cost 15,000 won a piece at Som-ni. But at Hoam Art Museum Shop, machine-made golmu are on sale for 4,000 won. The flower-shaped object is a puff for storing needles; it sells for 50,000 won.
Price: 15,000 won
Where: Som-ni; (02)725-2996
These aren’t shaman’s tools; they are hairpins, also called jam, which women traditionally used to hold their chignons tightly against their head. Today, Korean women with long hair more often use chopsticks or pens. Silver binyeo can cost up to 100,000 won.
Price: 5,000 won and up
Where: Uri Madang, (02) 730-5357
by Park Soo-mee