H Mart isn’t open in downtown Seattle yet, but a branch just quietly opened in the University District. Yay! Chef Rachel Yang shares some secrets of its shopping greatness.
The good news is that the marvelous Asian grocery store H Mart is still coming to downtown Seattle. Construction began at Second and Pine last year, to the rapturous excitement of fans who’d been traveling to Lynnwood, Bellevue, Federal Way or Tacoma for the shopping glory.
The bad news is that there’s no opening date and, according to a spokesperson, we’re not even close. With Oregon projects taking priority in the pipeline, the downtown Seattle H Mart won’t open until sometime next year.
The great news is that meanwhile, H Mart has already arrived in Seattle, debuting recently with zero fanfare in the University District.
4216 University Way N.E., Seattle, 206-547-0767; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; also Lynnwood, Bellevue, Federal Way and Tacoma; hmartus.com
For the unfamiliar: If you love Uwajimaya, you’re going to freak out about H Mart’s vast selection of Asian foodstuffs, starting with what the CEO aptly calls “the magnificent culture of our motherland, South Korea,” and ranging far beyond. Also, part of their mission is to “go out of our way and bend over backwards for the best price,” and it shows. H Mart is short for “Han Ah Reum,” which means “One arm full of groceries,” but you’ll probably end up with more than you can carry.
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The U-District location is a compact version of the store, on the Ave at 42nd, but it’s stuffed full of all kinds of to-go food and the ingredients for almost any Asian dish you’d care to make. Chef Rachel Yang — who, along with her partner, Seif Chirchi, runs the excellent Seattle restaurants Joule, Revel and Trove (plus Revelry in Portland) — met me at the U-District H Mart to check out the best the store has to offer. My secondary mission was to get ingredients for Revel’s beloved kimchi-and-pork-belly pancakes (the recipe’s available on The Seattle Times website and also appears in Yang’s cookbook “My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines,” out in September, available for pre-order from Elliott Bay Book Company, University Book Store and Amazon now).
“They really packed this place with stuff!” Yang rejoiced upon walking in. She loves the bigger versions of the store, but she’s also happy that they squeezed this one in so close to campus. “It’s great that it showcases the Asian population of the UW,” she said, then voiced approval of the K-pop soundtrack.
For a small store, there’s a ton of prepared food, like gimbap, the Korean version of sushi. “It’s all your food groups,” Yang explained, “your protein, your veggies, your eggs — always — and the rice is often seasoned with salt and sesame oil, instead of sugar and vinegar, so it’s more savory.”
All kinds of H Mart–made banchan, Korea’s assorted cold side dishes, are ready to go. These are good for the dorms (and for the rest of us) because they keep well and make nice quick meals when stirred into noodles or leftover rice. You can also make your own with some of H Mart’s packaged dried shrimp or squid, Yang said. “They make great banchan if you mix them in gochujang” — the Korean savory/sweet/spicy fermented red chili paste — “and stuff. They’re also a really great drinking food. People just have that and beer. Something salty. People love the salty.”
The Korean baked goods, she acknowledged, might not be to everyone’s taste — “All very fluffy, light, kind of Wonder Bread–style. It is what it is,” she said philosophically.
The iced-tea selection merited straight-up enthusiasm. “Corn iced tea, it’s really good … It’s so yummy. It’s made with basically all the hair of the corn and corn husks and corn cobs — they’ll roast everything and they’ll make a tea out of it.” If you like your iced tea sweet, you’ve got to try it, Yang insists. If not, the barley version “will be just, like, smoky. It’s really refreshing.”
“We can get everything here for our kimchi pancake,” Yang said happily. She chose Woori brand kimchi for me, made in Tacoma, no MSG. “I buy store-bought kimchi all the time and eat it at home,” she confessed. She feels too guilty taking it from the restaurants, where her staff works hard and plots out amounts carefully, and the last thing she wants to do when she gets home is make kimchi. “Gosh, I don’t want to discourage people from making it!” she said. “But I don’t.”
But kimchi at the store is meant to have a shelf life, Yang pointed out. It hasn’t been fermented very much. You can see that the color is bright; you want your flavor darker, deeper. Her secret is to leave it out on the counter for a couple days, until it starts to fizz out of the jar. (The lid stays on, but it’ll leak — be sure to put it on a plate.) Then give it a couple weeks in the fridge. “Ferment it to your liking, and it’ll be great,” she said. (If food fizzing out of the jar makes you nervous, know that kimchi is supposed to off-gas; it’s a natural product with a natural process, not like a bulging can of botulism.)
Another “big secret” to be found at H Mart: The Korean sea salt that Yang uses for finishing dishes at all her restaurants. “Look, this is $1.99!” she said, grabbing a sizable package — way cheaper than the fleur de sel that chefs go crazy for, and just as “sweet and minerally,” she said.
More to look for: “One spice that’s different than you often see … Everyone knows white sesame, black sesame, but here, this is wild sesame,” Yang said. “We love using it.” It looks more like brown poppy seeds, with a flavor Yang calls “super-herby … so wonderful.” Use it as a garnish, she instructs, or anywhere you’d use regular sesame.
Also: “Lots of different kinds of vinegar — that’s kind of a really fun thing. Here in the American grocery store, there’s a very limited selection.” She pointed out blueberry, pomegranate, kiwi and lemon, “something for everyone.” Some may not be made in the time-honored way, but persimmon vinegar is, according to Yang, very traditional. “Koreans love persimmon, and it’s something they’ve been doing for a long time,” she said. “It tastes like a mix of Banyuls and apple cider [vinegars]. It’s really rounded from the fruit, but it has that really dark, kind of caramelized flavor to it, too.” The one at H Mart comes in a pretty box — look for the drawing of persimmons on it. “You come here,” Yang said, “and it’s a little bit daunting, but: pictures.”
And don’t sleep on H Mart’s sesame oil. “Sometimes the Asian groceries at Whole Foods and places, they have a limited selection and the prices are really high,” Yang noted. “Once you come here and see the options you have …”
True fans of Korean flavor can, Yang pointed out, get gochujang at H Mart in little tubes, like tomato paste. “What they’re really popular for is travel. Korean people talk about how when they go abroad, having this in their purse,” like Beyoncé with hot sauce. And if you love the roasted seaweed snacks found at Trader Joe’s, Costco, and more, H Mart stocks a ton, and they’re way cheaper. “It’s kind of funny to see … it’s become such a popular thing,” Yang said. “Come to Korean stores and get this! Don’t pay all that crazy expensive amount of money.”
And at the new H Mart in the U-District, don’t miss the upstairs. I didn’t find out about it until the clerk was ringing up my ingredients for the kimchi pancakes (which came out beautifully, and I only aged my kimchi for a few days). Yang had already left (“OMG, upstairs!?!?” she emailed later). The stairway is tucked away in the front of the store, and the second floor houses millions of kinds of dried noodle soups, Pocky, candy, nuts, sake, soju, and beers from Korea and everywhere, plus rice cookers, chopsticks, slippers, and so much more. It’s a student’s — it’s anyone’s — paradise.