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

on May12
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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 won’t 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 couldn’t 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 farmer’s 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 nation’s 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, it’s 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. They’re 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 Mart’s 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. Kwon’s first store still stands in Woodside, with a blue awning that bears H Mart’s original name, Han Ah Reum. This is commonly translated from Korean as “an armful,” but has a poetic nuance, invoking warmth and care, as in an embrace.

H Mart is “a beautiful, holy place,” writes the musician Michelle Zauner, who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, in her new memoir, “Crying 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. “We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves.”

As the 20th-century philosopher Lin Yutang wrote, “What 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 “The 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 “the 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 wouldn’t 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.

“She 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.

“It’s so emotional, shopping for food,” said her son, Brian Kwon, 34. “You don’t want to be in a place where you feel like you’re 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 company’s books, to make sure everything was running smoothly.

It was, as Mr. Kim of the Canadian TV show “Kim’s Convenience” might say, a sneak attack. Once Brian Kwon entered the office, he never left. “My 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, they’re not actually looking for Asian ingredients; customer data shows that they’re 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. Han’s best-selling novel-turned-movie “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

To be welcoming to non-Koreans, H Mart puts up signs in English. At the same time, the younger Mr. Kwon said, “We don’t 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 “just 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 she’d 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 — “the 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 “Mister Jiu’s 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 “that 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.

“Access to those ingredients leads to a deeper understanding of the cuisine,” he said. “And 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 Ralph’s. Still, she goes to 99 Ranch for coconut milk, whole jackfruit and, above all, garlic in bulk — “a giant bag that I can use for months.”

(Garlic is an urgent matter for Asian-Americans: Ms. Zauner, 32, writes in “Crying in H Mart” that the store is “the only place where you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it’s the only place that truly understands how much garlic you’ll 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, “getting a dunk and having horizons broadened.”

“An Indian grocery is not just a convenience — it’s a temple,” he said. “You’re feeding the soul. Come in and pick up on the energy.”

In the TV special “Luda Can’t 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, “This is my house.”

The writer Min Jin Lee, 52, remembers how important H Mart was to people working in Manhattan’s Koreatown in the ’80s, when it was still called Han Ah Reum and “tiny, 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 “want to find some sort of connection to the food of their families,” she said. “There aren’t gatekeepers to say who’s in or who’s 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.

“Once I get there, my heart is beating,” she said. On the way home, she’d stop at a barbecue spot and drink soju. “Come home drunk,” she said with a laugh.

Sometimes when she’s 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 “old 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: “Maangchi, I’m 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. “I like going there because I feel good there,” she said. “In the context of hatred against my community, to see part of my culture being valued — it’s exceptional.”



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