THE AVERAGE Korean has never had to pause in the middle of a convenience store visit and think of certain items, like individual units of string cheese or crabsticks, as anything out of the ordinary. From the viewpoint of an uninitiated foreigner, however, items like pairs of hard-boiled eggs stick out like sore thumbs because they are not quite snacks or meals, neither are they a prudent decision when shopping for groceries. Perhaps it is important that the convenience store aisles reflect not only that what we consume is different from the rest of the world, but also that there is a difference in how we consume.
An ensemble cast
The standard way we might explain the organization of a convenience store is “meal, snack, drink, dessert, and hygiene items,” but for those of us who usually rely on the convenience store for meals in particular, there are perhaps greater dimensions to the convenience store set-up that our purchasing behavior reveals. What we commonly aggregate as the food section might be divided into “complete package” and “better assembled.” Some items like microwavable dinner sets aim to be complete meals that include all the fixings you might need. On the other hand, some food items come in the form of additional parts and standard skeletons so you can assemble your own Transformer-esque meals, which explains why individual units of string cheese sell. In some ways, it is not an unfamiliar business model; game console owners and avid toy collectors are familiar with a practice called “modding*,”and the same idea can be applied to how convenience stores market themselves. Often, ra-myeon and its new cousin, pre-made rice, are the bases of a meal, while kim-chi, hard-boiled eggs, crabsticks, and more are directly marketed as add-ons or fixings; we as consumers take nudges from this kind of product marketing and are prompted into giving modified meals a shot. We trust that a slice of American cheese could be the thing that changes our relationship with our favorite ra-myeon, and often we are rewarded when the experimental impulse turns out to be right. Instant food companies go beyond directly marketing their items as the bases upon which such customizable meals could be created. To provide the regular convenience store meal consumer with a variety that does not stray from familiarity, companies release trend-based versions of their products, such as ma-la-marinated eggs making it in units of two to the shelves of the convenience store—a product variation which might otherwise be considered an unviable stunt if the firm only had the option of introducing it through the usual dozen in a supermarket. The small cooking world of the convenience store is a reliable one not only because of the uniformity of its product range, but because it also gives firms the opportunity to ride on the waves of trends and a space to test trendy product lines on its consumer base.
Yo-ri vs. jo-ri
In Korean cooking, the terms yo-ri and jo-ri are used often, and not interchangeably; although in many translations into English, jo-ri is simply defined as cooking, and is undifferentiated from yo-ri. In our use of the terms, however, the difference becomes apparent. Certainly, these two terms describe our relationship to the activity of making a meal, but to distinguish them from one another, yo-ri is perhaps the more rigorous and sometimes more time-consuming activity of cooking, while jo-ri might be its more harried and casual cousin, being mainly concerned with food preparation. If we had to have a frame of reference, boiling down bones to make a stock, chopping up ingredients, and leaving a stew on the burner for a few hours would be called yo-ri, and assembling leftover rice in the refrigerator and some vegetables into ju-meok-bap* would be jo-ri. The manifold ways and processes of assembling food in a convenience store aren’t the same as heating up one item in a microwave and consuming it wholesale, but we might struggle to call it yo-ri as well. Jo-ri perhaps is the term for that kind of slight preparation. Rather than thought of as additional labor, convenience store jo-ri is often regarded by those who partake in it as an enjoyable experience.
Modern Korean cooking has always asked the question “What if we added that to this?” and has always respected the hands-on experience that people enjoy in their relationship with food. For su-je-bi***, for instance, tearing dough is an integral part of the making process, which restaurants often keep to cater towards those who enjoy being involved in some part of making their meal. Likewise,the quality of “making” has been preserved in the convenience store meal experience is both unsurprising and a relief for many. The structure of the convenience store is a rapid response to the increasingly fast-paced lifestyles and changing living situations of Koreans today. As cooking becomes too time-consuming a venture, and supermarket groceries with portion sizes too large for the one-person household become too wasteful, the convenience store that makes access to meals and the experience of making one’s meal more convenient becomes the busy individual’s much-needed refuge. Perhaps supermarkets and restaurants will catch up to this culture in the future, but for now, it is the convenience store that has most quickly produced the answer to our changing and persisting needs. It is liberating to be able to make rushed mealtimes less mundane and embrace the fun of “making” rather than “make do,” even as everyday responsibilities seek to marginalize these moments for us.
Your next convenience store visit
Overwhelmed by the amount of options at your disposal at the convenience store? Excited for your next convenience store visit and looking for some inspiration? Check out the recipes below to guide your next stopover and consider making them your own!
Challenge 1 (Beginner–Intermediate): Ra-bo-kki Upgrade
● 1 ddeok-bo-kki cup
● 1 dry ra-myeon cup
● 1 packet of shredded mozzarella cheese
● 1 hot dog
Directions: Cook the dry ra-myeon and ddeok-bo-kki separately according to package instructions. Pour cooked ra-myeon into the ddeok-bo-kki cup and add sausages. Mix thoroughly. Add shredded mozzarella cheese on top and microwave for one minute on a “high” setting.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5. It’s not beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be. It upgrades typical ra-bo-kki significantly, and this recipe is easily customizable according to your dry ra-myeon preference. It’s also not difficult to make in-store.
Tip: Cook your ra-myeon for half the recommended time to ensure your noodles don’t get too soggy.
Challenge 2 (Advanced): Kim-chi Fried Rice
- 1 packet of kim-chi
- 1 kim-chi and Spam triangle kim-bab
- 1 package of rice
- 1 packet of seaweed
Directions: Mix the first three ingredients together thoroughly in the package used for the rice. Microwave for one minute on a “high” setting. Add the seaweed.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5. It’s familiar; it adds the texture from kim-chi that un-augmented kim-bap offerings in convenience stores are missing, and the portion size is appropriate for a meal. It can, however, be a hassle without a spoon and a bowl that is large enough to stand mixing a bunch of ingredients together.
*Modding: An abbreviated form of the word “modifying” which refers to the activity of modifying a product from its original condition, for example by re-wiring a game console or replacing the grip of a toy gun
**Ju-meok-bap: A dish of rice and ingredients shaped into a ball by hand
***Su-je-bi: A dish of hand-pulled dough that is torn by hand and placed into a soup