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Old 11-05-2021, 07:38 PM posted to rec.food.cooking
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Default The Lure of H Mart

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/11/dining/h-mart.html

The Lure of H Mart, Where the Shelves Can Seem as Wide as Asia

The huge grocery chain and other megastores like it have revolutionized the way many Asian-Americans shop and eat.

By Ligaya Mishan
May 11, 2021

"At the H Mart on Broadway at 110th Street in Manhattan, the lights are bright on the singo pears, round as apples and kept snug in white mesh, so their skin wont bruise. Here are radishes in hot pink and winter white, gnarled ginseng grown in Wisconsin, broad perilla leaves with notched edges, and almost every kind of Asian green: yu choy, bok choy, ong choy, hon choy, aa choy, wawa choy, gai lan, sook got.

The theme is abundance €” chiles from fat little thumbs to witchy fingers, bulk bins of fish balls, live lobsters brooding in blue tanks, a library of tofu. Cuckoo rice cookers gleam from the shelves like a showroom of Aston Martins. Customers fill baskets with wands of lemongrass, dried silvery anchovies, shrimp chips and Wagyu beef sliced into delicate petals.

For decades in America, this kind of shopping was a pilgrimage. Asian-Americans couldnt just pop into the local Kroger or Piggly Wiggly for a bottle of fish sauce. To make the foods of their heritage, they often had to seek out the lone Asian grocery in town, which was salvation €” even if cramped and dingy, with scuffed linoleum underfoot and bags of rice slumped in a corner.

Il Yeon Kwon, a farmers son who left South Korea in the late 1970s when the countryside was still impoverished from war, opened the first H Mart in Woodside, Queens, in 1982. It was the middle of a recession. At the time, only about 1.5 percent of the American population was of Asian descent.

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Old 11-05-2021, 08:27 PM posted to rec.food.cooking
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Default The Lure of H Mart

GM wrote:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/11/dining/h-mart.html

The Lure of H Mart, Where the Shelves Can Seem as Wide as Asia

The huge grocery chain and other megastores like it have
revolutionized the way many Asian-Americans shop and eat.

By Ligaya Mishan
May 11, 2021

"At the H Mart on Broadway at 110th Street in Manhattan, the lights
are bright on the singo pears, round as apples and kept snug in white
mesh, so their skin wont bruise. Here are radishes in hot pink and
winter white, gnarled ginseng grown in Wisconsin, broad perilla
leaves with notched edges, and almost every kind of Asian green: yu
choy, bok choy, ong choy, hon choy, aa choy, wawa choy, gai lan, sook
got.

The theme is abundance €” chiles from fat little thumbs to witchy
fingers, bulk bins of fish balls, live lobsters brooding in blue
tanks, a library of tofu. Cuckoo rice cookers gleam from the shelves
like a showroom of Aston Martins. Customers fill baskets with wands
of lemongrass, dried silvery anchovies, shrimp chips and Wagyu beef
sliced into delicate petals.

For decades in America, this kind of shopping was a pilgrimage.
Asian-Americans couldnt just pop into the local Kroger or Piggly
Wiggly for a bottle of fish sauce. To make the foods of their
heritage, they often had to seek out the lone Asian grocery in town,
which was salvation €” even if cramped and dingy, with scuffed
linoleum underfoot and bags of rice slumped in a corner.

Il Yeon Kwon, a farmers son who left South Korea in the late 1970s
when the countryside was still impoverished from war, opened the
first H Mart in Woodside, Queens, in 1982. It was the middle of a
recession. At the time, only about 1.5 percent of the American
population was of Asian descent. Later that year, Vincent Chin, a
Chinese-American, was beaten to death in Detroit by two white
autoworkers who were reportedly angered by the success of the
Japanese car industry. Asian-Americans, a disparate group of many
origins that had historically not been recognized as a political
force, came together to condemn the killing and speak in a collective
voice.

Today, as they again confront hate-fueled violence, Asian-Americans
are the nations fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, numbering
more than 22 million, nearly 7 percent of the total population. And
there are 102 H Marts across the land, with vast refrigerated cases
devoted to kimchi and banchan, the side dishes essential to any
Korean meal. In 2020, the company reported $1.5 billion in sales.
Later this year, its set to open its largest outpost yet, in a space
in Orlando, Fla., that is nearly the size of four football fields.

And H Mart has competition: Other grocery chains that specialize in
ingredients from Asia include Patel Brothers (Patel Bros, to fans),
founded in Chicago; and, headquartered in California, Mitsuwa
Marketplace and 99 Ranch Market €” or Ranch 99, as Chinese speakers
sometimes call it. Theyre part of a so-called ethnic or
international supermarket sector estimated to be worth $46.1 billion,
a small but growing percentage of the more than $653 billion American
grocery industry.

Many of these chains have a particular focus (H Marts is Korean
products), but also attempt the difficult feat of catering to a
variety of Asian-American groups with different tastes and shopping
preferences.

Mr. Kwons first store still stands in Woodside, with a blue awning
that bears H Marts original name, Han Ah Reum. This is commonly
translated from Korean as €œan armful,€ but has a poetic nuance,
invoking warmth and care, as in an embrace.

H Mart is €œa beautiful, holy place,€ writes the musician Michelle
Zauner, who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, in her new
memoir, €œCrying in H Mart,€ published last month. The book begins
with her standing in front of the banchan refrigerators, mourning the
death of her Korean-born mother. €œWere all searching for a piece of
home, or a piece of ourselves.€

As the 20th-century philosopher Lin Yutang wrote, €œWhat is patriotism
but the love of the food one ate as a child?€

For an immigrant, cooking can be a way to anchor yourself in a world
suddenly askew. There is no end to the lengths some might go to taste
once more that birthday spoonful of Korean miyeok guk, a soup dense
with seaweed, slippery on the tongue, or the faintly bitter undertow
of beef bile in Laotian laap diip (raw beef salad).

When Vilailuck Teigen €” the co-author, with Garrett Snyder, of €œThe
Pepper Thai Cookbook,€ out in April €” was a young mother in western
Utah in the 1980s, she ordered 50-pound bags of rice by mail and
drove 150 miles to Salt Lake City to buy chiles. She had no mortar
and pestle, so she crushed spices with the bottom of a fish-sauce
bottle. Around the same time, Thip Athakhanh, 39, the chef of
Snackboxe Bistro in Atlanta, was a child in a small town in
east-central Alabama, where her family settled after fleeing Laos as
refugees. They fermented their own fish sauce, and her father made a
weekly trek to Atlanta to pick up lemongrass and galangal at the
international farmers market.

The essayist Jay Caspian Kang has described Americans of Asian
descent as €œthe loneliest Americans.€ Even after the government eased
restrictions on immigration from Asia in 1965, being an
Asian-American outside major cities often meant living in isolation €”
the only Asian family in town, the only Asian child at school. A
grocery store could be a lifeline.

When the writer Jenny Han, 40, was growing up in Richmond, Va., in
the 90s, her family shopped at the hole-in-the-wall Oriental Market,
run by a woman at their church. It was the one place where they could
load up on toasted sesame oil and rent VHS tapes of Korean dramas,
waiting to pounce when someone returned a missing episode.

A few states away, the future YouTube cooking star Emily Kim €” better
known as Maangchi €” was newly arrived in Columbia, Mo., with a stash
of meju, bricks of dried soybean paste, hidden at the bottom of her
bag. She was worried that in her new American home she wouldnt be
able to find such essentials.

Then she stumbled on a tiny shop, also called Oriental Market. One
day the Korean woman at the counter invited her to stay for a bowl of
soup her husband had just made.

€œShe was my friend,€ Maangchi recalled.

The H Mart of today may be a colossus, but it remains a family
business. Mr. Kwon, 66, has two children with Elizabeth Kwon, 59, who
grew up two blocks from the Woodside shop (where her mother still
lives) and oversees store design.

From the beginning, it was important to her that the stores were
clean, modern and easy to navigate, to defy the stereotype of Asian
groceries as grimy and run-down.

€œIts so emotional, shopping for food,€ said her son, Brian Kwon, 34.
€œYou dont want to be in a place where you feel like youre
compromising.€

He never intended to devote his life to the store. But not long after
he went abroad to take a job in Seoul €” seeking to improve his Korean
€” his father asked him to come home and look over the companys
books, to make sure everything was running smoothly.

It was, as Mr. Kim of the Canadian TV show €œKims Convenience€ might
say, a sneak attack. Once Brian Kwon entered the office, he never
left. €œMy father called it his "golden plan, after the fact,€ he
said ruefully. He is now a co-president, alongside his mother and his
sister, Stacey, 33. (His father is the chief executive.)

For many non-Asian customers, H Mart is itself a sneak attack. On
their first visit, theyre not actually looking for Asian
ingredients; customer data shows that theyre drawn instead to the
variety and freshness of more familiar produce, seafood and meat.
Only later do they start examining bags of Jolly Pong, a sweet
puffed-wheat snack, and red-foil-capped bottles of Yakult €” a
fermented milk drink that sold out after it appeared in Ms. Hans
best-selling novel-turned-movie €œTo All The Boys Ive Loved Before.€

To be welcoming to non-Koreans, H Mart puts up signs in English. At
the same time, the younger Mr. Kwon said, €œWe dont want to be the
gentrified store.€ So while some non-Asians recoil from the tanks of
lobsters, the Kwons are committed to offering live seafood.

Deuki Hong, 31, the chef and founder of the Sunday Family Hospitality
Group, in San Francisco, remembers the H Mart of his youth in New
Jersey as €œjust the Korean store€ €” a sanctuary for his parents,
recent immigrants still not at ease in English. Everyone spoke
Korean, and all that banchan was a relief: His mother would pack them
in her cart for dinner, then pretend shed made them herself.

Later, as a teenager, he started seeing his Chinese- and
Filipino-American friends there, too, and then his non-Asian friends.
Spurred by postings on social media, young patrons would line up to
buy the latest snack sensation €” €œthe snack aisle is notorious,€ Mr.
Hong said €” like Haitai honey butter chips and Xiao Mei boba ice
cream bars. (The current craze: Orion chocolate-churro-flavored
snacks that look like baby turtles.)

In €œMister Jius in Chinatown,€ a new cookbook by the chef Brandon
Jew and Tienlon Ho, Mr. Jew, 41, recalls Sunday mornings in San
Francisco with his ying ying (paternal grandmother), taking three bus
transfers to traverse the city, on a mission for fresh chicken €”
sometimes slaughtered on the spot €” and ingredients like pea shoots
and lotus leaves.

He still prefers €œthat Old World kind of shopping,€ he said, from
independent vendors, each with his own specialties and occasional
grouchiness and eccentricities. But he knows that the proliferation
of supermarkets like H Mart and 99 Ranch makes it easier for
newcomers to Asian food to recreate his recipes.

€œAccess to those ingredients leads to a deeper understanding of the
cuisine,€ he said. €œAnd that in turn can become a deeper
understanding of a community and a culture.€ These days, even
mainstream markets carry Asian ingredients. Ms. Teigen, who now lives
in Los Angeles, often buys basics like fish sauce, palm sugar and
curry paste from the Thai section at Ralphs. Still, she goes to 99
Ranch for coconut milk, whole jackfruit and, above all, garlic in
bulk €” €œa giant bag that I can use for months.€

(Garlic is an urgent matter for Asian-Americans: Ms. Zauner, 32,
writes in €œCrying in H Mart€ that the store is €œthe only place where
you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because its the only
place that truly understands how much garlic youll need for the kind
of food your people eat.€)

But Meherwan Irani, 51, the chef of Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C., and
Atlanta, feels that something is lost when you buy paneer and
grass-fed ghee at a Whole Foods Market. You miss the cultural
immersion, he says, €œgetting a dunk and having horizons broadened.€

€œAn Indian grocery is not just a convenience €” its a temple,€ he
said. €œYoure feeding the soul. Come in and pick up on the energy.€

In the TV special €œLuda Cant Cook,€ which premiered in February, Mr.
Irani takes the rapper Ludacris to Cherians, an Indian supermarket in
Atlanta. Once Mr. Irani had to scrounge for spices like cumin and
turmeric at health food stores; now, surrounded by burlap sacks
stuffed with cardamom pods and dried green mango, he tells Ludacris,
€œThis is my house.€

The writer Min Jin Lee, 52, remembers how important H Mart was to
people working in Manhattans Koreatown in the 80s, when it was
still called Han Ah Reum and €œtiny, with almost no place to negotiate
yourself through the aisles,€ she said. (It has since moved across
West 32nd Street to a larger space.) Her parents ran a jewelry
wholesale business around the corner, and relied on the store for a
cheap but substantial dosirak (lunch box) that came with cups of soup
and rice.

She sees the modern incarnation of the store as a boon for second-
and third-generation Korean Americans, including thousands of
Korean-born adoptees raised by white American parents, who €œwant to
find some sort of connection to the food of their families,€ she
said. €œThere arent gatekeepers to say whos in or whos out.€

Maangchi moved to Manhattan in 2008, and used to buy most of her
ingredients from one of the H Marts in Flushing, Queens. (These days
she just walks to Koreatown.) To save money, she would take the
subway, bringing an empty backpack and her own shopping cart, then
walk for 20 minutes.

€œOnce I get there, my heart is beating,€ she said. On the way home,
shed stop at a barbecue spot and drink soju. €œCome home drunk,€ she
said with a laugh.

Sometimes when shes at H Mart, one of her more than five million
YouTube subscribers recognizes her and flags her down. Those seeking
advice (or a photo op) are mostly non-Korean. But, she said, there
are also €œold ladies who come up to me and say, "I forgot everything
€” I left Korea long ago.€

Recently, with the rise in incidents of violence against people of
Asian descent, her fans have been sending her messages: €œMaangchi,
Im so worried about you these days.€

This is the paradox: that at a time when Americans are embracing
Asian culture as never before, at least in its most accessible forms
€” eating ramen, drinking chai, swooning over the K-pop band BTS €”
anti-Asian sentiment is growing. With visibility comes risk.

For Ms. Lee, this makes H Mart a comfort. €œI like going there because
I feel good there,€ she said. €œIn the context of hatred against my
community, to see part of my culture being valued €” its
exceptional...€

/


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