The 9 Top Products to Buy at H Mart
From kimchi to seaweed, here's what you should buy at H Mart, according to professional food writers and frequent H Mart shoppers.
Ever since its humble beginnings as a corner store in Queens, New York, H Mart has grown into a multinational Asian-grocery empire, with over 100 stores in 15 states, Canada and the United Kingdom. It has even earned itself a place in the title of a lauded, heart-wrenching memoir by Michelle Zauner, Crying in H Mart.
H Mart has flourished by cultivating a devoted following, who appreciate its diverse array of Korean and other Asian products that can be hard to find elsewhere, like multiple kinds of ground chiles for making kimchi. Shoppers are also drawn to the ready-made foods that are serious timesavers (it can sometimes take a month for some kimchi to ferment properly, and there are dozens of different kinds of popular banchan—and you'll want 10 or more on the table for a Korean dinner).
But for first-time store-goers, the dazzling variety of foods can be overwhelming. There's no need to worry, though: We consulted a couple of professional food writers, who are also diehard H Mart fans, and have pulled together this list of our favorite things to buy at H Mart.
9 Products to Buy at H Mart
Rice is the most important part of a Korean meal, but it can also be a serious pain to make—especially if you're only cooking for one or two. In a Korean household, making bap, or rice (and remember, this isn't the long-grain version you get in most American or Chinese rice dishes, so Ben's Original isn't going to work) used to require treating the rice cooker almost like a favorite pet, with its daily tending and cleanup. H Mart's microwaveable-rice aisles change all that.
"One magic Korean ingredient that is a staple for me is microwaveable short-grain white rice," says Eric Kim, a writer for New York Times Cooking. "I've written about this ... the way it's perfectly steamed rice that happens to be made in pristine conditions and is then vacuum-packed, and the only preservative is changing the pH, and that's great, because it's shelf-stable. I'd like to emphasize: It's not the microwave bad rice you usually think of. It's a really good, perfectly steamed bowl of rice. I just ate some right now with bibimbap."
Individual portions of toasted seaweed
Gone are the days when Korean moms had to oil, salt and individually toast sheets of laver over the stovetop—sometimes accidentally setting parts of the kitchen on fire—just so the kids could have a little kim to nosh on during episodes of Knight Rider. The same seaweed used to wrap sushi, kim by itself is basically Korean popcorn, and now it's available in convenient, individually sealed, personal-portion-sized packages at H Mart. Sure, an Americanized version is available at Trader Joe's now, too, but at H Mart, you can try out different brands and see which one you like best instead of being stuck with the store brand. (The oil on kim goes rancid fast, so don't buy too much at one time unless you're seriously into toasted seaweed.)
"We always get tons of ready-to-snack-on seaweed that the kids can munch on," says veteran food and travel journalist Matt Gross. "I always feel so good about giving my kids seaweed to snack on." (Is seaweed healthy? Read more here.)
Pre-cut frozen bulgogi meat
For many non-Koreans, bulgogi is the Korean gateway food. But it requires thinly sliced beef, which can be difficult for even professional chefs with the sharpest knives. All you need to do is make an H Mart run for prepared bulgogi meat, and you'll be grilling it up in no time.
"Finely shaved rib-eye is really hard to do at home," Kim says. "Recipes often say to freeze and then thinly slice with a knife, but even for people with good knife skills, it's hard to do without a machine."
Banchan—that little array of side dishes that comes with any traditional Korean dinner—don't come in large portions, but there are usually a wide variety on the dinner table, meaning that someone had to spend painstaking hours preparing a dozen or more different dishes for a single meal. The refrigerated section of any H Mart will be piled high with plastic containers of banchan, both in individual boxes and in "greatest hits" trays that ensure you have the banchan fundamentals, and it takes no more time to prepare these than it does to pay for them at the cashier and rip off the lids.
"I love how easy it is to assemble a full meal that you barely have to cook, and it's totally amazing," Gross says. "So you can rush through there and in 10 minutes pick up a marinated rib-eye for bulgogi, spicy marinated pork belly or pork ribs, you get kimchi, seaweed salad—whether Korean- or Japanese-style—little fish cakes with a slightly spicy marinade, the little anchovies with peanuts, all of those insane, little cool banchan, and then some rice, and then, suddenly, you've got everything you need for a meal in 20 minutes at home."
Alcohol is another favorite buy at H Mart, including both beer and makgeolli, or Korean rice wine. "There's a a graprefuit makgeolli that's slightly alcoholic and refreshing, and they have it on special all the time," Gross says. "You can get cans or jugs of it, and it's something that people really tend to like even if they've never had it before, but it's delicious and easy. And the H Mart on 32nd Street [in New York City] used to have really cheap beer. It was a really great discovery. You'd go in and get 12-packs of Sapporo or Kirin cans for like $12 or $14—in New York City, where you can spend $4 on a can of Bud Light. Keep your eye out for that, and grab them when you can."
H Mart isn't just about the victuals. Most locations have a surprisingly deep selection of housewares that are real troves for both burgeoning and expert chefs of East Asian cuisine.
"People shouldn't sleep on the home-goods section," Kim says. "I've gotten really good aluminum pots, like ramen pots. I've even gotten my rice cookers at H Mart throughout my life."
Korean food means kimchi. And besides those seemingly countless different kinds of ground chile for homemade kimchi, there isn't just one but over a dozen different kinds of fish sauce at H Mart.
"I remember being in H Mart a month ago getting ready to make a ton of kimchi at home and stocking up at supplies and looking at Korean fish sauces and thinking, 'Which of these 15 fish sauces should I use to make kimchi?'" Gross says. "'Oh! Here's one with a picture of kimchi on it, I guess that's the one I should use!'"
And, of course, you can always just buy premade kimchi at H Mart.
"You can even get old kimchi to use for kimchi-jjigae," he says. "If you're eating kimchi so fast you have no old, sour kimchi to use in your stews, you can just go to H Mart and buy old, sour kimchi!"
Individual packets of gochujang
If you live in a household where you're the only fan of gochujang, the sweet and spicy Korean chile paste, you probably already know that the smallest standard size you can get is a 500-gram tub—and that it's going to be taking valuable real estate in your fridge for a long time, since a little goes a long way. H Mart has solved that problem by selling convenient 60-gram tubes of gochujang, meaning you can squeeze just as much as you need for a meal and then slip it into the fridge door along with your saved packets of Taco Bell Fire sauce so that the kids can have all the space they need for their (sigh) Heinz ketchup and yellow mustard.
Kim relies on H Mart for when he goes deep in the weeds for his Korean cookery, including ox bones for a proper broth. But H Mart always impresses him when it comes to certain seafood.
"They are one of the only supermarkets that have live crabs," he says. "I called them ahead of time while I was developing a recipe, found out exactly when the crabs were coming in and was able to buy them prepped and cleaned just as they were killed. They also sell it frozen, but there are these little tricks, and if you can call them in advance, you can ask them to help you out."