Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Trip to Hmart: Eats Edition

I bought Choco Pies (but not quite a hundred,
unlike in this episode of the 2007 drama Thank You).

Because my recent trip to HMart was just too much excitement for one post, I give you further exploits from the road.

Hmart’s food court is smallish and tightly packed. It includes a bakery, a sushi place, a Vietnamese food stand, and three Korea-specific vendors: one focusing on “snacks” like spicy rice cakes and omelet rice; one specializing in Korean Chinese food; and one with full Korean meals. There are probably fifteen or twenty tables, most of which were packed when we arrived.

There’s a decent Korean restaurant in my town, but their menu is too limited to include most of the things available at Hmart. Which, of course, means that picking what I would try was torture—I wanted at least one of everything. The portion sizes were enormous, so my mother and I decided to split a few dishes.

Iceberg 4 o’clock!

Cold noodle soup. I now see why people are always eating this during summertime dramas—it’s crisp, vinegary, and refreshing. It features buckwheat noodles, sliced pork, assorted crisp veggies, and a hardboiled egg, all served in a clear, tasty broth. The soup was kept extra cold by big chunks of ice floating in it. (Whether it was frozen broth or water, I don’t know.) The meat was a little dry, but the pickled radish made up for it by being extra crunchy and delicious. It also came with a small bowl of spicy kimchi, which was a nice contrast to the soup.

Fish cake soup. I don’t think fish cakes taste much like fish. Or much of anything, really—like Korean rice cakes, these solid, meaty triangles mostly take on the flavor of whatever is eaten with them. At the Korean snack stand in the food court they were served in a miso-tasting soup. I also brought home a tasty fish cake side dish: it was stir-fried and packed with a not-too-spicy seasoning.

I definitely don’t have a bright future as a food blogger. In addition to being a
lousy photographer, I hated making a spectacle of myself by taking pictures of everything.

Seafood black bean noodles. I actually wanted the plain version of this dish that’s shown in so many Korean dramas, but an ordering fail meant this is what I got. Not that I minded—it was savory, seafoody goodness with clams, squid, and several kinds of shrimp. Some of the seafood was a bit overcooked and chewy, but this was still my favorite dish of the day. It also made me appreciate one of the most valuable chopstick techniques I’ve learned from dramas: the noodle grab. Because you’re slurping up wiggly, saucy noodles rather than twirling them around a spoon, there can be some serious spatter issues when eating this kind of food with chopsticks. But if you use your chopsticks to grab the noodles that dangle mid-slurp to steady them, things get a lot less messy.

Bread. The biggest area in the food court is devoted to Tous Les Jours, which bills itself as an “Asian French bakery.” Having just watched Baker King Kim Tak Gu, a food-porny drama revolving around a family-run bakery, I knew I had to try some of the offerings here.

A coworker who once lived in China tried to prepare me for the experience with a warning: “Asian bread looks good, but it’s not.” I have yet to meet any kind of bread I didn’t love, so of course I (foolishly) didn’t believe him. The emphasis at Tous Les Jours is definitely on the “Asian” side of things—French bread as it’s made in France is crusty and chewy and delicious, while the offerings at Tous Les Jours are closer to sugary Wonder Bread in both consistency and flavor.

The best part of this bread is the bag. Because it opens from the top you can
pick any slice you want, unlike silly American bagged bread, which makes you start off with the heel.

The loaf of regular sandwich bread I bought at Tous Les Jours is tall and narrow compared to sliced bread in the States, just like the loaves I’ve seen on Korean TV. The bread itself is so light and fluffy it dissolves the second you put it in your mouth, but it makes a desserty breakfast when toasted and served with lots of strawberry jam.

I also brought home a bunch of the single-serving “breads” Kim Tak Gu made in the course of the drama. (I would actually consider most of them closer to a pasty than bread.) The bases for each of the ones I tried are similar—a soft, spongy, and slightly sweet bread with a super fine crumb. The different flavors seem to be created mostly by adding toppings or fillings. My favorite was probably the walnut version, which was covered with a crunchy rind of sugar and chopped nuts. The bean paste–filled bread was okay, but the filling was a strange, granular mix of sweet and salty that I wasn’t crazy about. Rounding out my samples, the sesame bread was the big loser. Its only adornment was an unhappy trail of sesame seeds running down its center, allowing the blandness of the bread itself to really stand out.

The walnut bread. (And the award for best
food styling on a blog goes to...someone other than Amanda.)

I also bought lots of things to try at home, and have spent an extremely gratifying week doing taste tests. Here’s a sampling of the best. (Sorry for the lack of photos, but I just don’t have the patience for photography.)

Banana milk. Outrageously sweet and yummy, like a rich, creamy banana milkshake. Much, much better than the chocolate and strawberry flavored milks available in America.

Kimchi. There are lots of ways to buy kimchi in Hmart’s prepared foods section, but most of it is the standard napa cabbage variety with lots of red pepper. I picked a container that had been made by a local vendor instead of a pre-packed tub. The package included a whole head of cabbage, which I’ve been cutting up with a pair of scissors just like they do on dramas. I like that it’s fresher and the cabbage is more solid than in the jarred kimchis I’ve tried. Unlike mass-produced kimchi, though, there was no designation about the level of spiciness on this packaging. I generally go for the mild stuff when I can, but this spicier version isn’t bad. I’ll probably use it up in kimchi fried rice. (I’ve certainly got time—the best-by date on the package is May 31!)

It might be something you eat. Or it might be the remains of a particularly gory
Quentin Tarantino scene that was filmed at a salad bar. Who knows?

Garlic shoots banchan.  I think these are the green, above-the-ground parts of growing garlic that are sold as “scapes” around here. In this dish they’re mostly just chewy; they don’t have much taste other than the red pepper mix they’re fermented in. My favorite part are the pickled garlic cloves that are mixed in—they’re garlicky, vinegary flavor bombs. (I just saw someone eating this on Ojakygo Brothers, although I’ve never really noticed it in other shows I’ve watched.)

Mung bean sprout banchan. As someone who’s not a big fan of spicy food, I can tell a lot about Korean foods just by looking at them. If it’s red-tinted, I approach with caution—the red is from hot peppers. This pleasantly pale dish is always safe: it’s tangy and fresh-tasting, but not spicy. I love the version my local Korean restaurant serves as a starter. Hmart’s is just as good.

Cucumber banchan. Another favorite from my local Korean restaurant, this side dish is tart and crisp, and pairs really well with rich Western foods. (Including my beloved macaroni and cheese.)

I could probably eat a hundred Choco Pies before getting
sick of them, now that I think about it.

Choco Pie. No wonder the grandfather in Thank You was so obsessed with these. They’re soft and sweet with chewy marshmallow hearts. Like the box says: “Fill your mouth with a pleasure of rich chocolate flavor everyday.” The box does leave out something, though: Korean. Although the package I bought was manufactured in Korea for a Korean brand, there isn’t a single Korean letter to be found on the entire thing. So the question is, was the packaging made specifically for the international market, or do they really sell products in Korea that are labeled in English? (And French, and Spanish, and Russian, and some other language I can’t even identify. But not Korean.)

How will I ever return to everyday eating when my stock of tasty Korean dishes runs out? Will I actually...gasp...try cooking some of them myself?

Stay tuned to find out.


  1. "Or it might be the remains of a particularly gory
    Quentin Tarantino scene that was filmed at a salad bar." I'm dying of laughter... ! Good news about the sell-by date: If you don't make it by May 31, it'll last another 6 months at least (and the more sour it gets the better it tastes in soup).

    I've never actually had a choco pie. Maybe because I don't like sweet snacks as a rule - and I'm always picking out a different type of rice snack. The bean paste breads have actually become one of my favorite things of all time. I'd eat 10 of them in a row if reason (and quantity) didn't stop me. Funnily enough though, I hated the texture and taste of bean paste for the first 3-4 years, but I kept making myself eat them. Hard work pays off. I learned to love and adore the taste.

    Ooh, I miss that food court. There are probably 15 vendors at my super h mart. My mom now goes once a week (curse her!) and each time the shop ladies make her try something new because they know her now.. She even talks to them in the few words of Korean I've taught her and they get super excited. I admit, I'm always too embarrassed to try out my limited Korean. But I get a kick out of ordering my food in Korean, especially when there's no proper romanization for the foods I order. I always get rewarded with a huge smile (and more banchan than I can eat). xD

  2. That sounds (and looks) delicious! I'm a little skeptical about Choco Pies though. They kind of look like Moon Pies- marshmallow filling and all. Since I'm not particularly fond of Moon Pies, I'm not too sure how well it'd go...

    In my local Kroger, they have these drinks that are packaged exactly like how you see banana milk in dramas, except it's in Spanish. I didn't exactly put a lot of effort into my half semester in Spanish, and thus, walked out knowing no more than what I walked in with. ¿Dónde está el queso? I'm kind of scared to try it, and my mother refuses to buy something if she doesn't know what it is.

    Don't worry about your photographs, I was more focused on actually looking at the food than the quality of the photos :) And besides, how many of us, without a lot of practice or schooling, are actually really good at handling a camera?

  3. Oh, damn...I am so hungry now. Too bad I have no opportunities to eat anything Korean in my area. I don't understand how something can look so mouth-watering when you've never even tasted it before. What the heck, stomach? Maybe I won't even like the way kimchi tastes, why are you insistent on making me crave for it?

    The only thing I don't crave for is Korean bread and pastries, because I've heard some strange things about it. For instance that garlic bread tastes sweet. Wut?

  4. I was too intimidated to try the food court. As I continue to go to HMart I will try more things. I already had experience with Korean breads and pastries when I went to Korea a year ago. I know they are not what American tastes are used to. I was amazed at the different kinds of kimchi available. My local Korean grocery has come wonderful cabbage and cucumber kimchis so I am lucky to get it all the time.

  5. Yep, I'm starving too. Thanks for the full report. The bread in Ireland is the same style (a tall loaf) If you have some left--try nutella--yumm. I went to the Tours le Jours in KTown and brought back the oddest looking items for my friend. They went over...fairly well. Except the rice cakes which were deemed 'too much like eyeballs"

    1. Oh--and I just listened to an article on NPR about Choco-pies and how popular they are in Korea and all I could think about was Thank You!

  6. Garlic shoots banchan?!?! They are my favourite vegetable! I love a good garlic shoots stir fry. Not sure about combining them with pickled garlic though. I usually eat that by it self, and they are strangely moorish. I once ate two whole heads in one go and got indigestion :-)

  7. If you like ChocoPies, try the Oh Yes cakes. The name alone made me order them the first time, the taste keeps me ordering them again.

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