As long time subscribers to CSA boxes, one of the first things I did when we moved to Korea was look up a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) delivery service. Fresh produce is so plentiful here, but it’s not always cheap (or varied) and while I could probably build a relationship with a local farmer or vendor I don’t quite have the language skills for that. We have a small organic market across the street from our house but its selection of produce is very small. Some stores sell organic produce but usually the best assortment can be found at department stores…and it’s expensive! Before we subscribed to a CSA in Korea we found a box of approximately 10 organic tomatoes at a department store for something like $12, marked half off from $24 because some were bruised. I snagged as many boxes as possible. We have also found a pretty good and inexpensive selection of organic mushrooms and veggies at Costco and chains like Emart, but getting to those stores (and dealing with the crowds) can be a hassle.
There are quite a few CSA delivery/grocery services in Korea, but the one we use (Gachi CSA) is aimed towards English speakers. We have been receiving boxes since March and so far it has been wonderful. I love seeing what’s inside each box! A lot of times we will get very Korean ingredients — like perilla leaves or a strange looking radish or the waxy Korean corn. Sometimes we get things like beet greens or a huge sack of garlic chives. A lot of the produce are ingredients used to make traditional Korean side dishes, things we wouldn’t normally eat or wouldn’t be easily able to find in the states. It has been interesting (and fun) adapting these ingredients to make more familiar dishes. And it’s always so exciting when we receive “American” ingredients like basil and cilantro! (NOTE: for those wondering why I don’t make Korean side dishes with these ingredients — it’s because Korean food is so cheap and easy and amazing here that we would rather go out to eat or buy it at the grocery pre-made instead of slaving away prepping and fermenting a million different sides. Even Koreans do this, so I don’t feel too bad about it!)
I usually plan all of our meals based on what we receive in our box and make a menu for the week. I tend to only plan for five meal options since on weekends Sly likes to cook more elaborate meals or we like to go out and eat. We typically go to the grocery store once a week, or Costco once every other month, to buy any additional ingredients. I do the bulk of the meal planning and cooking during the week and since I’m not really someone that likes to spend a ton of time in the kitchen, I tend to plan very simple, easily executable meals.
For example, from this box I came up with:
+ red cabbage + some carrots from last week’s box: Japanese veggie pancakes (okinomiyake)
+ leafy greens + mustard greens: dinner salad
+ head of lettuce: tofu and mushroom Asian wraps
+ sweet potatoes: either stuffed sweet potatoes or sweet potato + onion hash topped with fried eggs
+ zucchini (+ another zucchini I saved from the previous week): pad thai “zoodles” with shrimp
+ apples: we got a lot of apples this time around and they are kind of the mushy type that I don’t like to eat. I’ll most likely make an apple crumble type dessert and then dry the rest in our dehydrator to use for homemade granola.
+ the remaining fruit we eat as dessert throughout the week, take for lunch/eat as snacks, or eat as a meal with cheese and crackers!
+ A lot of times we’ll get a bunch of leafy greens that I lack creativity to use in an exciting recipe. These either end up as breakfast (sauteed and topped with egg, aka what we like to call “eggs and weeds”) or blended up in our breakfast smoothies in place of spinach. When it doubt, PUT AN EGG ON IT!
+ I don’t typically like to eat root vegetables (like carrots) on their own. Because they tend to last for a while I’ll save them and make a soup, roast them with other veggies, or slip them into another dish like Japanese pancakes or zoodle pad Thai.
+ If for some reason we haven’t gotten around to tackling our box either because we have been too lazy or we haven’t been around much, we’ll just throw everything in the juicer. This hardly ever happens, but it’s a good way to use our veggies all at once instead of letting them go to waste.
+ We keep a decent amount of staples on hand — dried beans, lentils, pasta, frozen wild salmon, onions, tofu, bananas, block of cheddar cheese, avocados, etc. In case we don’t feel like anything on the menu we always have something that we can easily prepare.
+ Every now and then I’ll actually try out a new recipe (I’m more of a recipe reader/collector, not maker). If the recipe is good enough that we eat it more than five times, I’ll print it out and add it to our recipe binder. This recipe then becomes part of my menu rotation. Also, as a cookbook collector (I like looking at the pretty pictures), if I find a recipe we really like I’ll bookmark the page with a post it note. Right now my two favorite cookbooks are Thug Kitchen and Everyday Indian. I have also been really into the Luby’s Cookbook my sister gave me a long time ago — I reach for it when I need a taste of home.
It’s really easy these days to find a local CSA. If you live in the states, a good place to start is this website, but otherwise ask around at your farmer’s market. That’s how I first heard of CSAs back when I was a newb living in SF. Compared to buying the same organic produce at a farmer’s market or hippiemart, the produce boxes were a great deal. We always received so much more than we expected and it was delivered right to our door (which, in SF, is Godsend). We subscribed to several boxes while living in VA as well and had mixed experiences. One farm share included things like bananas, which were great, but since part of the whole CSA experience is supporting local agriculture, I don’t know of any local Virginia banana farms. The other box we subscribed to was pretty good. We found out about it through our nearby organic grocery — Mom’s. We signed up for a six month share but found that the amount of food we received (and the variety) was more than we were able to eat in a given week. I think finding a CSA that works for you is a bit of trial and error, but when you find one that fits your lifestyle, it’s amazing. Like opening a present every week!
In Korea, we subscribe to Gachi (formerly known as WWOOF) because it’s organic (or in some cases low-pesticide), delivers outside of Seoul (right to our doorstep) and because they speak English, it’s really easy for us to get in contact with them if we have questions or need to suspend our delivery like when we travel. I know there are other Korean CSAs available as well as grocery or single farm deliveries, I just don’t have the details.
Even more notes on CSAs:
+ A lot of times CSAs give you MORE produce than expected. Sometimes we were overwhelmed by how much produce we received in our boxes since a lot of items will arrive at their peak ripeness. In SF we learned to pickle and make jams (sounds hard, but is really easy) to preserve what we couldn’t eat, although we still have not found a way to consume 5lbs of frickin’ bok choy. Is bok choy really that much in demand? Anyway, our Gachi box is actually perfect for us — it’s a good amount that we aren’t ever overwhelmed, and while we do get a lot of things like kumquats or tomatoes or cabbage they do a really good job of switching it up so that no two boxes are the same from week to week.
+ We subscribe to the couples veggie box with the fruit add-on, but there are a ton of other options like breads, meats, and snacks. We haven’t tried anything outside of the veg/fruit box but if we had guests over we definitely would add a few supplemental boxes to our order.
+ The various costs for each box are clearly outlined on the Gachi website. We pay something like $55 or so a month for our boxes (we bought a full share). It probably sounds like a lot but since these boxes are our main source of food we’re ok with that. It would cost a lot more to buy the same items at a department or specialty store here. Something to note is that if you have a Korean Bank account then you can wire transfer your payment (very common and safe here) to them for free. If you pay using paypal (which is what we do), then you are charged an additional transaction fee. We sign up for a 6 month (I think) share so that we only have to pay the transaction fee once.
+ Our produce is delivered to our door weekly and usually at the exact same time. We have a gated complex yet somehow the delivery guy always finds his way in. We asked that the delivery be left at our door in case we aren’t home instead of with the security guard which I’m only noting because it’s nice that we are able to communicate with our CSA to set up our delivery preferences. In addition, you can suspend delivery for a week or however long you need if you won’t be around/are traveling — they just need to know a couple weeks in advance in order to coordinate with the farmers. The produce is very carefully wrapped (almost too carefully) and padded and contained within a cardboard box that is sealed. During the month-long heat wave, our produce came packaged in styrofoam coolers with ice packs.
+ You aren’t given much advance notice concerning what will be in each box — at most several days. They are pretty good at updating their social media venues with the next box’s contents. If you want to get on their Tuesday delivery list, you have to put in your order by noon the Friday before.
+ Most CSAs will include recipes with their boxes, especially if they include something that they know isn’t very common. In addition to the recipes found on the CSA website, I joined a Gachi CSA recipe group on facebook. I don’t ever really use any of these recipes (put an egg on it!) but it’s good to know that they exist.
+ Like most CSA programs there are lots of farm tours and community farm-centric events for families. We haven’t gone to any of these yet but they look fun.
+ The fruit and veg in a CSA box is not always grocery store perfect. Sometimes items have bruises or blemishes or arrive just on the side of being overly ripe. It’s a very very low percentage of what we receive but it does happen and it has happened with every CSA we have been a part of. Some people are disappointed when their produce doesn’t look as perfect as it does in the market. We accept this as being CSA subscribers and are ok with it. As I said, it doesn’t happen often and nothing has ever arrived inedible.
+ Our CSA also operates a traditional hanok-style guesthouse in Seoul! (AT least I think it’s the same people…same name, anyway.)
+ Another criticism of CSAs in general is that you can find produce cheaper at a grocery store/street vendor/market. Certain things are definitely cheaper in the market, but if we are comparing organic produce then the market selections are rather small. In terms of street vendors, unless you really know your farmer and can speak excellent Korean etc, I don’t know how you would have any way of knowing if the produce/meat/grains are organic. CSAs are not for everyone, but I definitely don’t think they are cost prohibitive, especially if they make up the major chunk of your groceries. In addition to getting organic produce, you are also supporting local farmers (typically cutting out the middle man) and encouraging more earth friendly and sustainable farms. Is it cheaper to buy conventionally (most likely pesticide) grown produce at a big chain supermarket? Most likely. Is a CSA worth it? For us, yes. If you don’t cook much at home or are not open to trying new veggies, then it probably will not be worth it. In addition to all the stuff mentioned above, at the very least it forces us to eat healthier and cook at home — which we prefer anyway — instead of spending money eating out or eating junk. We also eat less meat, which is more expensive, especially if you buy the ‘good’ stuff, and more veggies. If you factor that in to the cost then it’s actually cheaper to eat this way. I realize that we are very lucky to be able to even have a choice in deciding what we eat and a choice in deciding where to buy our organic produce. But since we do have a choice, and because this is something we both care about, we choose to support CSAs. Hopefully that didn’t come off as too preachy or dbaggy. A good, probably less biased, list of pros and cons can be found here.
+ For more information on sustainable, environmentally friendly, locally sourced food and community in Korea, check out the Hansalim (in English) website.
NOTE: I am in no way affiliated or getting any sort of reimbursement from Gachi, I just wanted to write about my experience with a Korean CSA for those that may stumble across this page in search of information. If you are curious about trying a CSA — just sign up for a “taster box” or split a box with a friend and see how it goes!