How to Shop a Korean Supermarket: a Chef's Guide to Hmart
"You're like, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh!" says Deuki Hong, the raffish 28-year-old chef of Sunday Bird, an acclaimed fried chicken joint in San Francisco. Fanning his arms wildly like he’s doing a reverse breaststroke, he mimics his shopping companion, Stacey Kwon, 30, who just stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of the Yonkers, New York, outpost of the Asian supermarket chain H Mart. She rearranges brightly labeled Korean soy sauces, pulling them from the back of the shelf to make the front look fuller.
“This is my house,” Kwon says with a smile. She means it literally. After all, she’s one of the presidents of H Mart and grew up in its aisles. Kwon’s father, Il Yeon, opened the first H Mart, a single corner store in Woodside, Queens, in 1982. As a teen, Kwon bagged groceries for the business. Today, that single store has grown into a family-run supermarket empire that includes 75 stores worldwide.
For much of its history, H Mart has served not just as a grocery store but as a gathering place and cultural touchstone for immigrants and their families. They come here for the staple ingredients they can’t find anywhere else: superfresh Asian produce, fiery housemade kimchi (the recipe comes from Kwon’s grandmother), and flavorful marinated meats like kalbi and bulgogi, ready to scoop from buffetlike tables. Afterward they linger at the stores’ expansive food courts, where mom-and-pop vendors dish out noodles and pastries.
After 36 years in the grocery business, H Mart is about to take its delicious (but decidedly no-frills) food courts to the next level: Kwon and Hong are in Yonkers testing a prototype of a new, sleek, modernized food court called Market Eatery, featuring chef-made takes on trending Korean dishes like fried egg–topped bibimbap, spicy tofu stew, and Korean fried chicken. After this, they’ll be Texas-bound to launch the real thing in January—a 30,000-square-foot chef-run food hall—at Austin’s first H Mart.
Kwon is proud of the store’s roots. But as interest in Korean cooking continues to grow and ingredients like kimchi and gochujang go mainstream, she felt the time was right to get more ambitious with H Mart’s food offerings.
“At H Mart, we stock the best ingredients for our customers to take home, so I thought, ‘Why can’t we bring that standard to the food court?’” She just needed a chef to partner with.
Hong had just left Korean barbecue chain Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in New York City and started his own West Coast–based hospitality group when Kwon called with the pitch: Did Hong want to reimagine H Mart’s food court?
Hong, it so happens, also spent much of his childhood at H Mart, hanging out in the snack and toy sections after church on Sundays. He would look for Pokémon cards while his mom shopped, then they’d slurp on stews and black bean noodles in the food court before heading home to New Jersey.
“It’s like, ‘O-M-G, H Mart called.’ It’s a brand I’m so familiar with, so I was excited to help out,” says Hong. “Also, I wanted to impress my mom.”
Hong’s official title at H Mart is chief vendor curator, and he’s lined up a dozen young-gun Asian chefs to join him in the newfangled food court.
In Austin, H Mart’s Market Eatery will house the franchise’s usual vendors, but you’ll also find an outpost of chef Chris Oh’s Seoul Sausage Company serving bite-size corn dogs in a crispy kimchi batter; a condensed milk panna cotta topped with fresh kiwi and pineapple from Austin’s SnoMo; and Hong’s trademark popcorn chicken with fried rice cakes from Sunday Bird and lettuce-wrapped grilled short ribs from Sunday BBQ, his long-awaited return to Korean barbecue.
Market Eatery in Austin is only the beginning. Kwon already has been scouting for more locations of the food court concept—nine and counting, including Honolulu and Chicago.
When it comes to measuring the eateries’ success, Kwon and Hong say they want to cultivate the thing that made H Mart special to them as kids: creating a home away from home.
“I love this,” says Kwon as she pushes one very full cart of rice cakes, soy sauces, Korean beer, and boxes of mochi ice cream toward the checkout counter. “H Mart is for people who need familiarity and comfort, but it’s also for people who have never been and are generally curious. We’re creating a neighborhood.”
Hong nods. He’s in the snack aisle, eyeing the shelves stuffed with shrimp chips. “If you’re enjoying time in our house, we’re happy,” he says.
H Mart's Greatest HIts, According to Chef Deuki Hong
1. Bae - Asian Pear
2. Buchimgaru - Pancake Mix
“It’s just like the American mix! Just add water, maybe eggs, chopped kimchi, and some juices, and you can make kimchi seafood pancakes. Keep an eye out for Haioreum brand.”
3. Chamgireum - Sesame Oil
“To balance out acid or spice, we use this nutty oil. I love fresh-pressed sesame oil, but you can also use more widely available brands, like Wang. You’ll want to drizzle it over every vegetable.” It’s the toasty note in the dressing for chilled tofu.
4. Ganjang - Soy Sauce
“This is the cornerstone of Korean cooking. It’s the base ingredient for a lot of dishes, like my kalbi marinade. No soy sauce, no kalbi. My go-to brands are Sempio and Haioreum, but low-sodium Kikkoman is fine in a pinch.”
5. Gochugaru - Chile Flakes
“The most essential ingredient in napa cabbage kimchi. Rather than dig through all the brands—though I do prefer Wang or Haioreum—focus on the flake size: Coarse-ground gochugaru is great for marinades whereas finer flakes are best for dressings and stews.”
6. Gochujang - Chile Paste
“No other pantry item adds the same depth. This paste is made from sun-dried then fermented Korean red peppers, and I buy the Haechandle and Haioreum brands for marinades and soups.”
7. Kkaennip - Perilla Leaf
“Herbs aren’t used all that often in Korean cooking. However, one exception is this leafy green, also known as shiso or sesame leaf. It’s perfect as a wrap in Korean barbecue or torn and tossed into soups. It has a unique anisey flavor that I love.” Use perilla to bump up the flavor of the Korean cabbage slaw.
8. Mihyang - Cooking Wine
“This is similar to mirin or Japanese vinegar, but it’s a little bit sweeter. Look out for popular Korean brand Ottogi.”
9. Heugseoltang - Raw Brown Sugar
10. Twigim Garu - Frying Mix
“Like with buchimgaru, pour in some water and it’s ready for frying, like you would with Japanese tempura. The Haioreum brand is king; I use it to fry sweet potatoes.” Power move: Combine it with the pancake mix for a crispier seafood pancake.
11. Tteok - Rice Cakes
“It is all about texture with these soft, chewy morsels made of pounded glutinous rice. I love them coated in a spicy sauce or deep-fried and served with honey.”
12. Yeonyu - Condensed Milk
“Primarily used in bingsu, Korean shaved ice, it provides creaminess and sweetness, and it binds together the ice with the fresh fruit, red beans, and mochi balls. The Jans version is my favorite.” Try it in a Korean riff on panna cotta topped with fresh fruit.