Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Trip to Hmart: Stuff Edition


One of my favorite things about Kdrama is how much attention it pays to the little details of life—how people eat, sleep, and even use the bathroom. Most shows leave me longing for more information, but as a resident of rural New England I haven’t had much chance for reconnaissance.

My curiosity about material culture in Korea has occasionally led me to the website of Hmart, an “asian-inspired supermarket” in America that carries many of the things that appear in Korean dramas, from aluminum ramyun pans to traditional Chinese medicines. But I only realized a few weeks ago that Hmart actually has a number of brick-and-mortar locations throughout America, including one that’s just over two hours from where I live.

I told myself it was silly to drive that far to visit what’s essentially a grocery store (especially when I’m a notoriously terrible cook), but I finally broke down this week when my mother mentioned wanting to go to a specific mall store that happens to be in the same direction as Hmart. I hijacked her trip...and spent so much time trawling Hmart’s aisles that we never did make it to the store she wanted to visit. (Sorry, Mom!)

In my local grocery store, they’re called “cucumbers.”

Just around the corner from the mall in Burlington, Massachusetts, Hmart is the size of a small suburban supermarket. About half its space is devoted to a straight-up grocery store that carries both Korean foods and typical American staples, and the rest is split between a cramped food court and sections devoted to Korean home goods, cosmetics, toys, and even red ginseng. There are also a lot of Japanese and Vietnamese offerings.

Hmart has the largest collection of fish this side of the
New England Aquarium in Boston.

I was particularly impressed by the huge, well-stocked produce and fish sections. They had things I’m familiar with from television cooking shows but never expected to see in real life, from durian to jackfruit to seas of tiny octopuses and giant flatfish. Of course there was also a whole section of dried squid, each pressed flat as a piece of paper inside its plastic casing.

My mother hates fish and I’m suspicious of any food item that still has its eyes on, so I’m afraid that our provincial side really came out as we walked through the massive seafood area. About halfway I realized we were both gingerly keeping several feet from the glass and covering our mouths with our hands in quasi-horror, as if a fish might spontaneously try to jump in. (In spite of its apparent authenticity, I noted that the shrimp served with our lunch arrived in their shells but without their heads. This may have been a nod to bumpkin eating habits, or maybe they were saving the heads for stock.) I know from a intellectual standpoint that heads are where the yummy bits are, but my visceral reaction as a fish-stick eating American is just too strong to overcome.

I’ve seen entire grocery stores that were smaller than the instant noodle aisle, and the contents of the soy and fish sauce section would probably fill every swimming pool in my entire home state.

A wang’s ransom of ramyun.
(Oh, Korean. Why must your word for “king” be so unfortunate?)

Any one of these bottles of soy sauce would
probably last me the rest of my life.

There are big sections of prepared foods, including lots of kimchi and a wide variety of vegetable and fish banchan, or side dishes. My local Korean restaurant carries only a few types of banchan, and the idea of making something at home that you’ve never had before seems weird to me. Even following a recipe, how do you know you did it right if you’ve never tried the finished product before? So of course I brought a cooler so I could get a bunch of things to try later. (Handily enough, Hmart provided bins of free ice that you could scoop into bags just for this purpose.) There were also lots of samples, but it took a brave soul to try them—many were so spicy they left me teary and gasping, which is not an attractive look for the freezer section.


The kimchi section is about as big as my house.

The prepared foods. I bought one of each. (Well, not really.
But I will be eating pickled radish for a long, long time to come.)

The rest of the store is filled with housewares and other goodies ranging from bedding to toys, makeup, jewelry, appliances, and plates. This is what I was most excited to see, and it didn’t let me down; I finally got a close-up look at a lot of things I’ve always wondered about. The cylindrical pillows that show up in some traditional Kdrama households, for example, are about 3,000 times harder than the kind of pillows I have on my bed, and they’re filled with buckwheat that gives them a shivery, sandy feel to the touch. Hmart only had one sleeping mat, which was essentially an inch of firm padding in a quilted casing.

I’ll take my pillow-topped mattress over this sleeping mat,
but I’d sure love to spend a night on one. I suspect that
they’re actually more comfortable than I think.


Knowing that kimchi jars are intentionally porous enough to allow outside air
to enter,  I thought they’d feel different from regular crockery. They don’t, though.

The ramyun pot: my single most coveted Kdrama item.

During my travels, I spotted a number of drama curiosities that I’ve wondered about. It can be hard to be sure what’s real and what has been created for television, but it seems that anything important enough to find its way into Hmart’s limited space must be truly essential.

A face massager, as shown in School 2013. 
I guess it’s supposed to minimize your jawline?

A food umbrella! 

The favorite snack of Coffee Prince’s Eun Sae, who was always eating them off the
tips of her fingers. I have no idea what they’re made of, as the label was only in Korean.

Naturally, I bought a ridiculous number of things during my trip.
  • A selection of ramyun. Korean ramyun noodles seem to be a bit thicker than what’s sold in America, and they generally require a 4-minute cooking time instead of the 3 minutes I’m used to. The ones I’ve tried have all come with veggie packets as well as seasoning mixes. 
  • Two headbands with bows on them.
  • A “Yam Air-freshener” in the form of a penguin with pointy ears. (Or something?) It says in glorious Engrish: “As a new characteristic air-freshener, Yam is a guardian angel that makes you dream happy and pleasant dreams. You can make your fun story with yam.”
  • A plastic scoop with a handle, for which I will almost certainly never have a use. But it was 2 dollars, and they always seem so handy on television. How could I say no to that?
  • Banana milk in juice box-style packaging, complete with bendy straws.
  • An aluminum ramyun pot that I belatedly discovered might melt if used on my ceramic-top stove. I did serve ramyun from it the other day, and I swear it really was tastier when eaten off the lid.
  • Stainless steel chopsticks, which I was interested in trying out. I’m not particularly graceful with any sort of chopsticks, but I’ve found these heavier, rectangular versions especially hard to use. They’re slippery and keep twisting around in my hand whenever I try to pick something up. 
  • Long-handled soup spoons. I like these a lot—the added weight and slight bend of the spoon make them really easy to use.
  • An assortment of baked goods necessitated by my recent viewing of Baker King Kim Tak Gu.
Most of the loot. (The rest is in the fridge—fermented or not, after two hours in the car
 my peace of mind required immediate refrigeration.)

I couldn’t find everything I wanted to try—the only Korean pears they had were in huge, pricy boxes, and I somehow managed to skip the beverage section altogether so came home tragically sojuless. And although there was a big section of Korean ice creams, most of them were in pint or gallon format—this Hmart didn’t seem to have any of the single-serving plastic kind. I also didn’t buy any music, although I found some shelves of Kpop buried in an area devoted to toys and fashion accessories. All the big bands I read about were represented, including CN Blue, Sistar, JYJ, and 2NE1, among many others. There were no drama box sets (for which my credit card is eternally grateful).

Even though it was a long trip (and partially conducted during the Friday evening rush on one of the most terrifying sections of I-95 near Boston), I’m glad I went to Hmart. It was an eye-opening experience to be such a rube tourist in my own backyard, and the people-watching was amazing—I saw girls at the food court with their pricey purses in the seat behind them, a mother assuring her toddling daughter that they wouldn’t forget to buy her favorite canned Korean tuna, and even a few dreamy boys that could give our drama stars a run for their money. (You were the ripped Lee Sun Gyun lookalike at the food court; I was the heavyset girl with frizzy hair and a camera. Wanna get together and speak some Korean?)

Check back Thursday for the second part of this post, which will focus on the copious amounts of food consumed along the way.

38 comments:

  1. Ohhh Amanda.. you finally made it to Korean food heaven. There is a Super H Mart back in Houston that I visit frequently when I am in the area (or ask my mom to pick up items from on her way here). It is the size of a giant super center and totally fabulous.

    My favorite sections are the ramyun and prepared banchan/kimchi. I also walk by the seafood section in awe, but although I like seafood a lot, I have no idea how to prepare it if doesn't come out of the freezer section already headless and boneless, and definitely with no tentacles, Lol.

    Why have I never bought the food umbrella!! I want, so much! Can't wait to read about your food consumption part 2 xD

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    1. Omo! If the one I went to is a regular old H mart, I can't even imagine how fabulous a Super H Mart must be. I'd probably never leave. I'm with you on the ramyun/banchan sections—in fact, I'm eating kimchi fried rice with a bunch of miscellaneous banchan leftovers and Spam mixed in right now. It's so good =X

      I definitely prefer fish of the Groton's breaded variety, native to freezer sections around the nation, to these leviathans. I wonder if you could even buy parts of the fish I took a picture of, or if you would have to purchase the whole thing. You'd feel like Ahab carrying it out of the store, if so. This still doesn't beat the fish markets I saw in Paris when I was studying abroad there, though. You'd regularly see things that were still *moving* for sale there.

      If Hmart were closer to my house, I'd totally be a regular at the food court.

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  2. hahahaa love love love seeing the ever popular hmart through your eyes! and yes, something about ramyun cooked in a squashed metal pot and eaten off the lid just has no comparison ;) thanks, as always, for your lovely posts!
    -pinkblossom

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    1. I'm such a hick =X I stopped traffic in the store with my gawking. Also, did I read that you actually went to Korea?!?! I might actually die of jealousy, although I'm way too chicken to do it myself.

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    2. hahahaa yesyesyes i was in korea! just got back a few days ago, and i had trouble understanding what they were asking me at starbucks -- the words coming out of their mouths were neither korean nor high-pitch nor super eager-to-please lolol!! i felt so gauche taking pictures of random posters on the street while i was in korea... you should totes go if/when you get a chance! :D
      -pinkblossom

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  3. you're hilarious! I live in Saudi Arabia,and i havent come accross A SINGLE korean shop yet.i did visit a japanese store , but it was a sad imitation of the traditional shop i had in mind. *sigh*

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    1. On the bright side, there's always the Internet ;) My next goal is to visit a Koreatown—the one in New York City isn't much further than Hmart.

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    2. If you would like company let me know when you plan to go and possibly I could meet you there. Koreatown NY is also on my list of places I have to visit.

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  4. XDDDDDDDDDD I think my favorite part was about the good-looking boy in the food court. I live near a fairly large Korean/Korean-American community and have often found myself ogling at the pretty flower boys at school or at the mall-like place we have. I'm pretty sure if I wasn't such a shut-in and could get out more (I sound so old sometimes. I wonder if people actually believe me when I say I'm a teenager on some of the sites I frequent. OTL) they'd be able to remember my face and I'd be known as the creepy white girl who stalks the food court and ogles at good-looking Asian boys while crying at the insane spiciness of the tiny amounts of Korean/Japanese food I've managed to eat. If it's red, DON'T EAT IT! (especially if your a wimp that can barely even eat bbq potato chips. Don't look at me like that! I know! I'm scared of spicy food, okay? OTL)

    Actually, they may already know who I am... I need a disguise. *rubs imaginary beard thoughtfully*

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    1. The boy at the food court was far, far out of my league. I sure liked looking at him, though ;)

      I'm also a wimp about spicy things, but I'm trying to overcome my fear at red Korean foods. The trick is eating them with rice, I think—it makes the heat less unbearable.

      And some people might think it's nice, but I hate it when I go places often enough to be recognized by the people who work there. That's also one of the downsides of moving back to the town where I grew up as an adult—the random man at the post office is always asking about my high school friends, and the woman who manages my condo complex babysat me when I was a little kid. I like to pretend I've grown up to be cooler than I was when I was young, but alas they keep reminding me about the spiral perm phase, circa 1993.

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    2. I'm not too fond of people recognizing me, either. I grew up in a small town, but I don't think it was as small as your's seems to be. The worst thing for me is being very very shy (I think I have a social phobia), and having a very very sociable mother. She could probably make a tree talk back to her. Random people are always coming up to us in stores saying, "Judy! How are you? Oh, look at y'all! *gasp* The girls have all grown up!" My (twin) sister and I always just look at them and smile awkwardly and wait for them to get done talking while also subconsciously preparing to answer questions about school and things. As soon as they are out of earshot, we always ask: So... who was that? I always get a little worried when my mom just shrugs and says she's not sure, but they were certainly nice! (What if we have stalkers who are going to come and murder us one day?!)

      The only phase I could probably be reminded of when I get older would be the faux-hawk I had for two years. To this day, I still wonder how on Earth I talked my parents into letting me cut my hair that short. My dad was like, "Cool!"; my grandmother freaked out, though, circa 1.5-ish years ago.

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  5. I can't believe you just went to H Mart for the first time. So did I, just last week. I went to the one in Duluth, GA and is was a Super H Mart. I spent several hours there going through all the aisles, listening to the Korean ladies hawking their samples. I bought Indian, Korean and Japanese eggplant, a coconut like Professor Oh likes so much, Korean sweet potatoes. I found the beverage aisle so I can now say I have drunk Soju! I also bought Makegolli rice wine and Hite beer. It's 4 hours from where I live but I'll be making regular runs from now on to replenish my supplies. Also there is a Korean flea Market called Nam Dae Mun just down the street that I didn't get a chance to go in but definitely will next time. I had to look at the cute boys as well even if they could be my grandchildren. Oh, well......

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    1. I feel like a whiner for complaining about my 2 hour drive, when you went 4! Are you going to do a post about it? (Or where you, like, restrained and mature and not taking pictures of everything you saw?)

      I clearly need to go back to Hmart if only for the beverage aisle...

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    2. I meant to also comment that I was in Boston this week for a conference. Too bad we couldn't have met up. My daughter went with me and I took her to a Korean restaurant in Allston which has the waitresses have this slogan on their T-shirts "Will work for Soju". Had a great time. Didn't get to go to the Korean sauna in Palisades Park, NJ as I had planned due to a family emergency but will ger there eventually. On the way back home on the Jersey Turnpike we past a shopping center and there was another H Mart. I wanted to stop so badly....

      Yes, I will be posting on my blog.

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    3. My sister lives near the one in Duluth and I'm jealous (not really) of her. She's so lucky!!! I came across this post while searching for one near me in Md. I'm fortunate to be a half hour away and will be sure to visit before the week is out! :-)

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  6. Wow, I've been planning my trip to the Burlington HMart for the longest and still haven't gotten around to going. Now I must go!!!! Did they have soju there? I've been searching for it for the longest and still can't find it in my area.

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    1. I missed the beverage aisle, I couldn't swear to this Hmart having soju. Other ones do, though, so the odds and good. And anyway the store is too fun to miss. (Someone on the internet must ship soju, yes?)

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    2. I have looked on the internet and found some places but the shipping charges were more than what the Soju cost. The H Mart in Duluth definitely sold it.

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    3. The Burlington HMart does not sell alcohol but there is a package store in the next plaza that does carry Korean alcohol. Plum wine ... yum!

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  7. OMG I am soooo envious!! Even tho I live in multicutural Sydney, the nearest Korean grocer is 30 minutes drive away and no where near as large as Hmart. Hope you enjoy all the goodies you bought!

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    1. I ate too much spicy food over the weekend and immediately got indigestion. I guess that explains why people are always sick in Kdramas ;)

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    2. LOL! You can probably pick up some indigestion medication at Hmart!! And probably some hangover medication too for after a soju session.

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  8. Woot! What a fun post!! :D And yay that you went! And bought a ton of stuff! :D Sounds like it was totally worth the 2-hour trip there and back ^^

    Really looking forward to the next installment, coz well, it's FOOOODD!! YUM! ^^

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  9. Thank you for this! We kdrama lovers are living vicariously through your experience. I've trolled HMart's online store many time, but have never purchased anything. Wish there was one in my area. And since you have a picture of Choco Pie, I take it you haven't seen the drama "Thank You" with the diabetic, Choco Pie Lovin Grandpa (every time I see Choco Pie I think about that character). Can't wait for Part 2!

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  10. This is awesome! This reminds me a little of Professor Oh's Bathtub Snack vlog segments. She will climb into the bathtub and eat Korean snacks while explaining what they are.

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    1. I love Professor Oh! That's why when I was at H Mart and saw the coconuts I had to buy one. The trouble is I don't know how to open it. Have to look on the internet or ask her to do a video on how to do it!

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    2. Coconuts can be really tricky to open...I am sure the Internet has answers ^^ What did we do before the Internet ;)

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  11. There is a Super H Mart not too far from me (25-30 minutes or so) It has it's own Best Buy inside, a food court, and several small specialty shops that ring the perimeter. I go over there every so often to get a few things. I like the pumpkin rice porridge for cold winter days. It just hits the spot. I also like to pick up mandu for when I'm lazy and feel like having a snack dinner.

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    1. I am so jealous it is that close for you!

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  12. Hey, I think I may have solved the problem why I couldn't post to your great blog! Thanks so much for the intro to HMart, alas, the closest one in CA is 400 miles away.

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  13. Wow--this sounds awesome! So much fun and the pictures are great! I'm totally going to have to trick/finagle my friends into going.

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  14. Looks like we were on similar wave lengths! I just made a visit to Ktown here in NYC for a blog post. I was lucky enough to find a fun little Korean shop and ate at a great restaurant. I didn't make it into a grocery store to try all the packaged food yet though. Looks like fun! I'll have to read what you have to say about the food before I buy it.

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  15. Stopped by my H Mart in Duluth, GA on my way back to SC from Memphis. Had to buy me a ramyun pot (and a couple more bottle of Soju)! Not a good idea that it's on my route .....

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  16. My sister and I went to our first H Mart last year. It was in Dallas (8 hours away). Loved it! Wished it were closer. It must be a Super H Mart. It had little boutique shops in it as well. They even had one that sold toilets. You know, the fancy ones that strike terror in you when you see them and scenes from You're Beautiful flash through your mind. We walked past the nail salon and watched the horrible dying scene from The Moon Embracing the Sun. Without subs, but who needs subs for dying? And all our favorite CNBlue was playing overhead in the gift shop. Woot! Somewhere that it isn't weird that you know all the lyrics to a Korean song!

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  17. I live in the Berkshires and recently made the 3 hour pilgrimage to HMart for the first time and had an experience very similar to yours.

    FYI - you can't buy alcohol in HMart but the liquior store in the next plaza has soju, plum wine, and other Korean drinks.

    Wasn't the tasting aisle a delicious surprise? I came back with more panchan dishes than I could reasonably eat before their expiry date. The seasoned dried squid, kimchi radish, spicy tofu, and fish cakes were my favorites. My home fridge took on a decidedly Korean smell ... no wonder they have separate kimchi fridges.

    I eyed those lovely tables under the food umbrellas and will certainly buy one on the next trip (and without a doubt there will be a next trip, as what you can order online with Hmart.com is so limited compared with the store.)

    Loved discovering the KDrama OST CDs, and the shopkeeper told me they get bought mostly by non-Koreans like myself who have become KDrama fans. I was Ooohing and Aaahing over KPop stars and when I saw Mickey Yoochun ... there I was all noona fangirl. Totally embarrassing.

    I too had to get a second ramyeon pot, that cute single serving size. Ever boil something in it until the top blew off? I laughed when that Korean saying happened to me in my own kitchen. I think those lightweight, quick heating pots are particularly suited to do that.

    I also almost bought myself a stone pot. Oh how I want to learn to make steamed eggs or bipbimbop and serve bubbling on my own table. I really never had Korean food prior to this year and it was KDrama food porn that brought me to lust after Korean offerings.

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    1. It strikes me as really funny that Hmart is like...a destination supermarket ;) Thanks for the information about buying alcohol there—the next time I shlep at that way I won't be disappointed by the beverage aisle.

      My fridge acquired a Korean food oder for a while there, but even worse is the fact that the kimchi leaked a little in my car. I scrub and scrub, but still there's the faint whiff of dried shrimp every time I open the trunk.

      I'm the same with the Kdrama food porn. A Korean restaurant opened locally years ago, and the first time I went in my party took one look at the scary menu and then left. Now I got there all the time, and wish the menu was even more obscure and Koreany ;)

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