Like Willy Wonka’s Candy Forest, but for banchan.
I’m obsessed with the banchan section of H Mart. I just had to say that right off the bat. My favorites are the “salted” raw seafoods, my go-to being the salted octopus. Yet, upon first sight, it’s evident these seafood dishes are marinated in a lot more than just salt… they appear to be doused in a bright red paste. The ingredients don’t list much more than salt, sugar, and the seafood in question. But this red paste is definitely gochujang-esque. Beware of whole chunks of raw garlic hiding amongst your tentacles (or not, if garlic’s your thing). But lovers of Korean food will already be familiar with what a garlic-heavy cuisine it can be. And the soft vegetal bite is a nice contrast to the endless chew of the half-inch-long octopus tentacles. Do I always feel slightly guilty eating this while thinking about how cool and smart octopuses are? Yes. Is this the most addicting ready-to-eat item I’ve ever picked up from a grocery store? Most likely.
If you haven’t already been to H Mart, you’ve probably at least heard of it: referenced in the title of musician Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart. I say it’s a must-read for everyone, but if you can’t make time for the whole thing, this New Yorker essay of the same name, that also serves as the memoir’s first chapter, is a great teaser. Zauner describes H Mart as “freedom from the single-aisle ‘ethnic’ section in regular grocery stores,” and she’s (mostly) not wrong. H Mart’s sheer scale and variety of products could never fit on to the narrow, designated “ethnic” shelves of a traditional American grocery store.
H Mart’s biggest downside is that they don’t sell much more than Korean food. Zauner says H Mart is where she can find the snacks her mother used to eat in Korea, but I don’t recognize any snacks my Dad would’ve eaten in Thailand. And on an aesthetic level, all the product labels seem to have that gleam of over-enthusiastic marketing common in US-made processed food products. Everything is just so shiny. Shopping there feels like walking through Willy Wonka’s candy forest, where everything I put in my basket is a treat. It’s extremely well organized, clean, with prices neatly printed and perfectly labeled for each product. It’s a contrast to the small mom-and-pop Asian grocery stores I grew up going to, their cramped aisles filled to the brim with price gun stamped products still idling in the wholesale boxes they were imported in. I was used to driving an hour to the next biggest rural town in Wisconsin with my dad just to buy a bag of sticky rice and some Thai basil from an unassuming Hmong-run grocery store no bigger than a 7-Eleven.
In fact, the first H Mart I ever went to was the one in Cambridge, MA, and I was already in college. I was stunned at how much it resembled any other chain grocery store in the US. I didn’t need a grocery store to be shiny and scrubbed clean from top to bottom in order for it to be an acceptable place to buy my fish sauce. I was perfectly happy going to Jia Ho supermarket in Boston’s Chinatown for my staples. Because when you’re homesick and just looking for a little bit of Maggi sauce to sprinkle on your eggs in the morning, it doesn’t really matter what kind of store you buy your ingredients from.
But it does make me wonder, if my American-born friends had a more open- minded approach to what a grocery store could be, would they be equally as excited to visit India Sweet & Spices or LAX-C as they are to visit H Mart? On his new Hulu show, The Next Thing You Eat, Dave Chang makes a point about restaurants that I hope is equally applicable to grocery stores. He says, “some of the best restaurants in the world are in the worst locations humanly possible,” juxtaposed with an image of an Asian street food stall tucked under an urban bridge. In the same way most LA residents have embraced food trucks and New Yorkers have embraced bodegas, I hope more people will grow less afraid of the tucked-away grocery store marked only by foreign language signs.
I haven’t written off H Mart because it’s unfamiliar. In fact I’ve grown to trust H Mart as much as I trust my Dad’s go-to Asian grocery store. But in the pursuit of delicious, hard-to-find ingredients, I’d go anywhere for that.
The Lay of the Land
In Los Angeles, you’ll probably be going to any one of three H Marts in the Koreatown area. Regardless of which location you end up at, you’ll likely enter through the produce section. Although relatively small, you’ll find that they sell no less than five different varieties of cabbage (I counted). Cherished fruits such as donut peaches and Korean pears are neatly lined in styrofoam trays and tightly wrapped in cling film to keep them blemish-free. This is also where kimchi is sold by the pound.
In other refrigerated sections, you’ll find vacuum packed single servings of popular Korean dishes such as seaweed salad, buckwheat noodles, and tteokbokki. Some are ready-to-eat, some come with their sauces in separate packs and require only a few easy steps of cooking to prepare, making them ideal meals for those shopping for one or with little time to cook.
Beyond produce, the aisles are generally grouped by these ingredients: sauces and seasonings, snacks and cookies, grains and rice, and instant noodles. Yes, instant noodles get their own aisle. I highly encourage folks to explore the different flavors of ramen beyond Nongshim Shin cup noodles. H Mart also carries a few brands from outside Korea. I was introduced to IndoMie in middle school and it’s been one of my favorites ever since.
Endless bottles of soy sauce, sesame oil, gochujang, ssamjang, fruit vinegars, and yes, plenty of fish sauce, can be found at H Mart. Better yet, there are several options for organic soy sauce, which is more than the single brand a traditional American grocery store might stock, if you’re lucky enough to find it at all. This is one of the aisles where the neat shelf labels actually come in handy as most of the product labels themselves are entirely in Korean. I love that H Mart stocks Three Crabs fish sauce, a trusted Vietnamese brand I know a few chefs prefer. The Korean-made fish sauces may possibly be labeled anchovy sauce or tuna sauce instead. Although I’ve never heard of any producers in Southeast Asia using tuna to make a fish sauce, I’m going to go with my gut and say it probably tastes similar to regular fish sauce.
In the meat section, there you’ll find a lot of pork and beef as well as a huge variety of seafood. I like to go to Korean markets to buy fish roe to go with my homemade poké bowls or the gargantuan sushi bake, if I’m feeding a crowd. My brother’s favorite item in this section is the pre-marinated thinly sliced pork, exactly like what you would find as a menu item in Korean Barbecue joints. I generally shy away from any pre-seasoned proteins because I like to control the flavors myself, but it’s hard to get your meat sliced this thinly at home and the pre-marination means no wait time to let those flavors soak. Last minute KBBQ party at my house, anyone? Regardless of whether you have the whole tabletop grill setup at home, my brother says a quick sear in a cast iron works just as well.
Finally, banchan! This is what I come to H Mart for. I wish the Whole Foods hot bar was more like the banchan section of H Mart. The dishes here come packed in those little plastic clamshells with printed-on sell-by dates and are sold by weight. Things that you might find in the frozen section or back where you’d find the tteokbokki are sold here: but in their fully cooked final versions. Shumai dumplings, already steamed; sweet soy glazed mackerel, already broiled; fresh kimchi, already sliced into bite-sized pieces. Anything you’d need for a filling takeout lunch. But come after 7pm and they might be selling these items 2-for-1 in order to make room for tomorrow’s fresher offerings.
Come here: If you’re looking for anything and everything Korean. Also come for your favorite Korean dishes that you want to eat at home but aren’t confident enough to cook from scratch, a quick take-out meal, kimchi in bulk, or anything you would need to make your own kimchi.
Don’t come here: If you’re looking for ingredients specific to other Asian cuisines and “classic” American processed foods and snacks, produce with more eco-friendly packaging, or if you have an aversion to “too much” garlic (no such thing in my opinion).
H Mart Madang Plaza
621 S Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90005
H Mart Koreatown Plaza
928 S Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90006
H Mart City Center
3500 W 6th St, Los Angeles, CA 90020
What I bought
I bought a little kit for tteokbokki that comes with the rice cakes, fish cakes, and sauce, to assemble and cook at home. Delicious. No complaints. Nice and spicy and sauce was thick like a gravy.
This Korean fermented hot pepper paste is ubiquitous across Korean cuisine but I find it to be a very versatile ingredient. It’s slightly sweet and makes a great marinade for all sorts of grilled, seared, or pan fried proteins. For something vegan, try dissolving it into a sauce with soy and brown sugar for the best braised cabbage you’ll ever have.
I guess it’s a soy-flavored rice cracker wrapped in nori. I’ve been eating these since I was kid and I love how salty and crunchy they are. Every package I find seems to be a Japanese-made product, but I snag a bag every chance I come across and they’re halfway gone by the time I have driven to my next destination.
Last newsletter: Super King Market
My friend Claire tried pomegranate molasses whipped into yoghurt and ate it as a dip. Now my mouth is watering, picturing a yoghurt-based ice cream flavored with pomegranate molasses and dotted with little jewels of pomegranate seeds. Perhaps Mashti Malone’s would consider making my ice cream flavor dreams come true.
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