H Mart was my saving grace during Covid-19 because while the grocery store literally across the street had massive lines 24/7, I could breeze into H Mart, like any Asian restaurant at this time, and it would be almost empty except for fellow Asians, all excellently masked. I could be in and out in 15 minutes, a Dr. Fauci-approved amount of time for indoor contact, grateful that for a change I could make racism work for me. Whilst my fellow New Yorkers were “Hunger Games”-style brawling for that last single roll of toilet paper, I could pick up bales of normal or Hello Kitty toilet paper at any time.
Things are opening up again, and between “Squid Games”, K-Pop, “Parasite’s” Oscar win, and the volumes of K-dramas that were consumed over the quarantine, now Korean culture, and by extension, H Mart, is cool. There’s even a great new memoir by Michelle Zauner, the musician also known as Japanese Breakfast, called “Crying in H Mart”, which is an uber-specific, yet universal look at how food and memories of it tie us to our loved ones.
For the newbie, however, shopping at a Korean market can be intimidating because you don’t know what the items are, especially if the labels are in Korean and/or incompletely translated (what are “fish pencils” anyway?), and the people who work there can be brusque and may not speak English. But don’t let that stop you from the glories and bargains.
1. Stock Up on Foodie Quality Produce
The produce area of an H Mart is like walking into a “Chopped” basket. Beautiful piles of dragon fruit, Asian pears, the correct kind of cabbage (Napa) you need for kimchi, persimmons.
I found a beautiful rare citrus, a Buddha’s hand. They are a beautiful fruit that’s almost all rind. You can chop them up and candy them. They have various health benefits, a lovely lemony-floral aroma, and are often used as offerings on altars. I always get so excited when I find them. The last time I had one was a scraggly one I saw in a Whole Foods. The variety of peppers and mushrooms is also impressive.
Produce is often a bargain because, well, it is a superstore. I once found the same organic maitake mushrooms that I’d been paying $6.99 for at Whole Foods for $1.99 — and the H Mart ones were much fresher. (There’s a similar jackpot feeling for deals on items like green onions and tubs of chopped garlic.) Also, Koreans aren’t as picky with how the fruits or vegetables look. In fact, small is beautiful. Korean watermelons are small and sweet and considered superior to the blimp-sized ones. I’ve found bagged avocados that are a bit smaller to be great bargains. You can often find exotic herbs like lemongrass at rock-bottom prices. And of course, gourmet items like Asian pears:
2. Host a Party with Prepared Food
The prepared food is fresh, fresh, fresh. If you like California rolls, gets some kimbap, which is the perfect picnic food because these rice rolls are seasoned in such a way you don’t need any sauces — just pack and go. It’s my favorite neat-to-eat food for planes. For dinner, get some DIY bibimbap — it’s usually packaged as fresh veggies and sometimes meat that you will put on hot rice that you make at home. Like a salad, but better.
Besides an abundance of kimchi, Korean superstores will have a super assortment of prepared side dishes, known as banchan, which can be vegetables, fish, tofu, and even a mayonnaise-y salad. Get a bunch of these, make a pot of rice, and you’re all set for dinner.
3. Enjoy the Snacks & Samples
Not to mention that Korean groceries have the best snacks: shrimp-flavored chips, honey butter potato chips, choco-pies, green tea Kit Kats:
For the immediate-gratification types, most Korean superstores will also have a small food stall where you can get a snack or lunch. It’s usually in the back of the store, or off to the side. Because it’s so easy for them to get the ingredients, the food’s often great, and cheap.
Pro tip: There are also usually abundant free samples around, so Korean grocery shopping is the one place where you should shop when you’re hungry. Just a reminder that age rules, and if a granny in front of you wants to grab all six fried dumplings, it’s her due.
4. Go Treasure Hunting in the Housewares Section
Korean housewares are clever and cool. You can get stainless-steel chopsticks that you can put in the dishwasher. If you like those airtight food containers with the lock-top, I first saw those in Korean groceries, and you can get great glass ones if you’re avoiding plastic.
The Korean grocery will also have beautiful stainless steel scrubbing pads that will add a touch of disco to your dishwashing. These things are often tucked away in a corner of the store, just look for the R2D2-shaped rice cookers and you will be in the right area.
If you watch any cooking shows, I have noticed that instead of the fancy Frenchy-sounding mandoline, they use the Korean grocery staple, the mint green Benriner, to grate and make beautiful thin slices of things. I keep wondering if the Benriner is favored because it’s more open — that is, more dangerous without all the guards for your fingers — and allows you to get those great slices as long as, as the box says, “Watch out your fingers.”
5. Indulge in Health and Beauty
Korean cosmetics are now a “thing,” and often near the kitchen section there will be Korean cosmetics, straight from Seoul: those papery skin masks, snail extract to slime your wrinkles, lipstick in panda containers, and of course masks, masks, masks—what more could you ask for?
Plus, besides the cosmetics masks, KF94 Korean masks are, according to this New York Times article, almost as good as N95s, and probably more comfortable. These are usually tucked away in the bath products section.
6. Treat Yourself to Plants, Bedding, & Delightfully Kooky Knick Knacks
Some H Marts even have plants! My urban H Mart sold me some bamboo for luck. At a suburban New Jersey one, I came home with these gorgeous veggies that are doing okayish in my window — don’t know if it’s more just going to be for fun or if I’ll actually get enough to harvest.
Many superstores will often have a separate outbuilding that you might not notice. The one I went to in Flushing Queens had plants, bedding, and all sorts of kooky massage tools, slippers — as well as a small barbecue stand smoking right outside of it.
My husband found a massage tool that allows one to massage one’s own back — it was inexpensive and he became obsessed with it, although I, unfortunately, forgot to buy it because I spotted a stack of brightly colored Korean pillows, the kind you use to sit on the floor instead of using a chair, and I was beset by paroxysms of joy, as I haven’t seen these outside of Korea. The solution is, obviously, we’ll have to go back.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is an acclaimed Korean-American writer and author. Her groundbreaking young adult novel, “Finding my Voice”, will be republished for a new generation of readers in December. Her next novel, “The Evening Hero”, on the future of medicine, immigration, North Korea, is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster. She graduated from Brown University and was a Writer in Residence there before she began teaching at Columbia University’s Writing Division.
71 Hmart Locations in the US
If you are lucky enough to live in one of these 71 locations, run, don’t walk, to get all the Korean groceries you never knew you needed.
- San Francisco
- Buena Park
- Diamond Bar
- Garden Grove
- Los Angeles – Madang Plaza
- Los Angeles – City Center
- San Diego
- San Diego – Balboa
- San Jose – De Anza
- San Jose – Oakland
- Los Angeles – Koreatown Plaza
- Flushing – Northern 144
- Flushing – Goowha
- Flushing – Northern 156
- Flushing – Union
- Great Neck
- Williston Park