From Howard County, a short drive will let you buy spectacular vegetables, fruit, fish and Asian or Latin groceries. Low prices. Incredible selections. Specialty offerings at a price that lets you try out that Asian pepper, unusual spice or the fruit that you have never seen before.
My top choices are the H Mart off Rte 40 in Catonsville or the Super Grand south of Rte 198 on Rte 197 in Laurel. You can also shop at Lotte in Ellicott City. I have posted about various aspects of these stores that I'll summarize below, but nothing beats an hour exploring the aisles. You want to go because you'll do this week's grocery shopping and get to add a little adventure to your life at the same time. Nothing lose; a world of flavor to gain.
(Update: A huge Lotte opened in Catonsville in December 2012. Search for posts about that grocery as well.)
Let's start with the guaranteed finds. In my post about "my favorite place for food," I wrote that Asian ingredients don't even make my Top 5 reasons to visit H Mart. They're ideal. I love the wonton wrappers, the coconut milk, the Asian pears, and the aisles of rice, tofu and sauces. These should be your first stops if you're trying to cook anything from Korean to Chinese to Thai, but you'll find far more than soy sauce and seaweed at H Mart, Lotte or Super Grand:
- Fruit -- The fruit lasts longer than items from anyone else. In-season fruit comes at spectacular selections like a dozen varieties pears, and there are unusual selections like Koran melons or lychees. Try a box of Asian pears when they're in season. A luxury suddenly becomes something that you can share and enjoy day after day.
- Frozen Food -- The frozen aisle is full of convenience items. Dumplings. Shu Mai. Red bean ice cream. Bags of edamame. Even a brief scouting trip will send you home with some great frozen items and inspire you to return.
- Mexican Food -- No joke, everything you need for a Rick Bayless cookbook. Hispanic vegetables like plantains, jicama and chayote prove the worldliness of the market owners. They serve up Latin cheeses, chorizos, and spices. They have entire aisles of Goya beans, sauces and rice, and Super Grand has even more than Lotte or H Mart.
- Vegetables -- The vegetables make Asian markets worthy of a pilgrimage for any cook. As I wrote in the post about vegetable shopping, you get low prices, great selections, and produce that just lasts longer in the fridge. It is rarely organic. But the Asian markets are my favorite place because you get variety along with some unique items like all the Asian greens and cabbages.
- Fish -- These are the places to experiment with fish. As simple as fillets. As exotic as live tillapia or squid. Great prices on clams that let me cook an entire vat of chowder last winter. All the markets sell whole fish, and the fishmongers will gut, skin or cut up the fish into a bunch of styles that they list on signs over their heads.
Last year, I knocked off a list of 10 items that were easy to just grab off the shelf. No cooking to eat refrigerated kimchi or the frozen dumplings. A little assembly to create seaweed wrappers with rice and tuna fish. Since then, I keep finding new items by just reaching out and reading the package:
- Make quick pickles with Yoricho cooking vinegar. Slice vegetables, pour on that vingegar and water. You have pickles in 20 minutes.
- Create a unique dessert by buying sweet rice cakes. They're a fine hand-held snack. But I jazzed them up by slicing two into eight pieces, then serving that plate next to a fruit salad.
- Buy a great takeout dinner by grabbing soup or ready-to-grill meat. Then, sample any of the "panchan" -- prepared vegetables, fish cakes, tofu and other Korean side dish -- that the store sells by the pound. Lotte has a great selection of panchan that you can buy in bulk (or in tiny tasters). Lotte isn't my favorite market, but the prepared foods are terrific.
(Update: See other ideas in the comments below like lumpia or frozen banana leaves.)
If you're interested in exploring, check out my review of Kimiko Barber's cookbooks. The Japanese Kitchen and The Chopstick Diet are great guides to the Japanese aisles and offer delicious, accessible ways to cook the noodles, seaweeds, vegetables and fish offered at the Asian grocery stores.
This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about shopping in Howard County. Or click to switch to the posts about different cuisines or posts about areas and ideas.
PREVIOUS: Ethnic Shopping in Howard County
800 N. Rolling Road
Catonsville, MD 21228
NEAR: Rte 40 just west of I-695. If you are driving from HoCo, you'll see a Starbucks and a FedEx at the end of the shopping center. Turn right immediately after the Starbucks. If you miss it, just turn right at the next intersection.
13600 Laurel Bowie Road (Rte 197)
Laurel, MD 20708
NEAR: This is on Rte 197 about a half-mile south of Rte 198. It's right off the BW Parkway, so it's an easy drive from I-95 or U.S. 1 via Rte 198.
8801 Baltimore National Pike
Ellicott City, MD 21043
NEAR: On Rte 40, just east of Rte 29. From Columbia, you go north on Rte 29 and take the Rte 40 East exit. Stay in the left lane on the exit ramp. That takes you into the shopping center.