Monday, June 9, 2008

H Mart: My Favorite Place For Food

If you wanted five reasons to visit the H Mart, Asian food wouldn't make the list.

You can buy any Asian ingredients that I have ever wanted from Thailand to Korea -- wonton wrappers, coconut milk, long beans, three kinds of bok choy, 10 kinds of tofu, 10 kinds of rice, an entire aisle of sauces from soy to fish to chili. I found pickled plums. I discovered Asian pears. I bought bulgogi meat ready to cook.

But H Mart if my favorite place in the world for food because the opportunities are endless even if you don't cook Asian food. To keep this a blog post (and not my novel about supermarkets), these are five, truncated reasons why you have to drive Rte 40 east almost to I-695.

5) The Fruit
Eve wouldn't be able to decide what fruit to pick from the H Mart display. Year-round, I get a selection -- and a price -- that no one else beats. Watermelon, pineapples, berries, baby
bananas. The fruit lasts longer than anywhere else, and the in-season fruit comes in breath-taking arrays -- five kinds of pears, eight apples, six oranges, four plums. It is such a luxury to scoop up bags of fruit, knowing that the bill won't be high and that I can stockpile it even if I won't go grocery shopping again for two weeks. Have an apple taste-off between types. Make pies. Explore the seasonal exotics like rambutan, lychee and Korean melon. Just one transforms a fruit salad into something special. A small plate transports your table to another country.

4) The Frozen Food
You don't even need to cook. Walk down the central aisle and pick from two walls of freezers and the display case between. Dumplings. Shu mai. Ice cream. Bags of edamame
Fillipino pork marinated in 7-Up and skewered for easy grilling. Everything has a US label, so everything lists its ingredients in English. So try a few and come back for what you like.

3) The Mexican Food
No joke. Half the H Mart employees are Hispanic, and the store clearly caters to a Latin market with a mix of American and imported goods. Start in produce with plantains, jicama,
and the standard vegetables that people use across the continent. In Aisle 2, check out the Latin
wall with a full Goya collection of beans, sauces and rice, Coco Rico coconut soda, hominy, etc. In the freezer near the rear, look for fried plantains and blackberry pulp. In the dairy section, round out any Mexican shopping list with queso fresco, crema salvadorena, chorizos, and La Fe brand arepas. (Pass on the refrigerated tamales. The frozen ones at Lily's Mexican Market are better.)

2) The Vegetables
The vegetables just last longer. I don't know why. I have green beans that I bought 10 days ago, and I have been cooking them up in little batches still crisp and fresh. They're also cheap. I shop with a few items that I need, plus roving hands that just grab whatever looks good. Carrots, cukes, eggplant, cauliflower, perfect every time. Cilantro that lasts for weeks. A herb display up front with rosemary, Thai basil, etc. Bring Vegetables Everyday by Jack Bishop, and you can flip to the section for whatever looks good and find five simple recipes. Or bring an Asian cookbook and explore the new world of choy sum, bitter melon, fuzzy squash and banana flower.

1) The Fish
But the fish market is the spot that can't be replicated. They bring the world to you in an endless variation. Start with the absolutely familiar -- precut fillets and steaks of cod, tilapia, salmon and the species that swim on many menus. You order by the fillet or by the pound. Next time, check out the rest. Sushi-grade salmon and tuna for home-made sashimi. Packaged-up fish heads for stock.

The central offering is whole fish, which I have worked through slowly. The sign over the fish mongers shows you the ways that they'll prepare. They weigh the whole fish, then cut out whatever you don't want. Number Four is no head, no guts, no scales. That is the way that most recipes suggest. Whole fish steamed or roasted makes a delicious meal, and the H Mart offers a changing list of fish beyond the basics. Ask for help. People speak English, and they have answered dozens of questions as I watched.

Like every other department, the beauty of the H Mart is that everything is fresh and everything is reasonably price or even cheap. So I experiment. I tried kingfish. I tried a whole snapper. I bought one squid -- cleaning it from diagrams in How To Cook Everything -- to add to soup and to see if I could stomach cooking invertebrates. My friend's new husband loves clam chowder, so I splurged on bags of clams to cook New England chowder for a celebrating table of 10. The chowder was amazing, and I couldn't have even started if I were buying old clams at 50 cents each from the Giant.

There is still a world a fish that I haven't tried. Frozen squids. Live tilapia. Snails. Head-on shrimp. I figure that I have time.

You don't even have to cook! Check here to see that the H Mart offers prepared foods and delicious items that you can just eat off the shelf. Although, I do think that Lotte in Ellicott City has an even-better selection of prepared food because Lotte has a panchan bar that you can sample by the ounce.

If you're interested in exploring the H Mart, check out my review of Kimiko Barber's cookbooks The Japanese Kitchen and The Chopstick Diet. They're great guides to the Japanese aisle of our local Asian grocery stores.

For a full listing of ethnic and organic markets in Howard County, check here.

H Mart
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.

Hanahreum Asian Mart/Mannarang on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

I agree fully (though I haven't checked out the fish section quite so thoroughly). I love shopping there. The only warning I would have to a new shopper is to try to go there first on a weekday or weeknight. Weekend shopping, while delightfully bustling, is also really crowded! (Which is a great testament to the place.)

Anonymous said...

Is hmart and organic store?

HowChow said...

@Anon -- HMart is not an organic store like Roots, David's or Mom's Organic Market. I assume they sell some organic items, but I haven't ever looked in detail there.