A distinctive smell assaults your nostrils as you pass through the front doors at most Asian markets. It's a distinctive aroma of old durian fruit, fish sauce, musty vegetables and dusty shelves, with subtle hints of international commerce. This smell is unpleasant compared to whiffing a fresh-cut pineapple, but after your first few trips you grow accustomed to it, and even start to miss the odor when it isn't there.
That's what initially puzzled me about H Mart: no Asian market smell.
What H Mart does have is the look and feel of a big-box chain, the competitive prices of a big-box chain, free food sample islands everywhere and a few products that left me with more questions than answers.H Mart is a South Korean-owned chain of high-end Asian supermarkets that is proliferating across the country. I made my reek-free entrance into the store at 2751 South Parker Road in Aurora at lunch, when the place was pretty hectic. Shoppers were clustered around displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, and forming almost impermeable groups around the samples. One of the taster tables I managed to crash provided me with several toothpick stabs of housemade kimchi. Every kitchen puts its own spin on the classic mash-up of fermented, chile-seasoned cabbage and vegetables, and H Mart's is sharp, crisp, colorful and noticeably oniony, with plenty of mild chile so that it's flavorful but not spicy, with a bit of sweetness from strips of white radish. Among the many different varieties of bok choy and a pile of oversized Fuji apples, I found a display of garlic stems. These bright green bundles of curling stems are the immature stem shoots of the garlic plant, and they look like thin, smooth asparagus. I brought a bunch home; prepared like asparagus, they are absolutely scrumptious -- but only for those who are nuts about a hard thwap of garlic flavor. On my way back to the dry goods, I was sidetracked by a plastic bin housing dried kiwi slices, and after purloining one to affirm that they tasted as pretty as they looked, I scooped a pound and added the bag to my rapidly crowding cart. Asian markets are usually a cheap form of entertainment for the seafood alone. The bratty adolescent in all of us loves to make goo-goo eyes at the squid, poke a shrimp head or two and feel sorry for the tilapia, blithely swimming around in the tanks like they aren't about to be someone's late lunch or early dinner. I did all of those things, and the squid looked awfully plump and fresh. Then came the weird stuff.
The shelves at a typical Asian market inevitably hold a treasure trove of exotic and sometimes unintelligible eats and drinks. Yesterday's foray brought me face to face with squeezy bottles of miso soup base, cans of cinnamon punch, red yeast and cheese crackers, chewy pumpkin candy, noodles with a mixed message, creepy hunchbacked totems filled with marmalade, cans full of things not usually found in cans, milk-flavored soda, anime-blue cherries and a roll decorated with cut-up hot dogs."Miso Easy" is a squeeze bottle of soup mix, and probably due to a genuine syntax oversight on the part of the manufacturers, it sounds like a mating cry when "Easy Miso" would actually be a great name for a soup seasoning.A drink made of cinnamon, in punch form, in a can. I imagine that it has breath-freshening qualities and that leaving an open can in the bathroom could probably replace a boring old air freshener -- but I skipped buying a case of the stuff, because I didn't t want to drink it and I only have one bathroom in my house. Red yeast and cheese crackers...they are probably healthy and all, and they do have a fetching crimson hue, but their name just doesn't sound good to say out loud in front of people. Maybe the manufacturer should consider renaming them something like "Cheasties," or "Chee-yackers." The idea of passing out chewy pumpkin candies to children at Halloween seems festive, but if you've ever tasted a slice of raw pumpkin without the trappings of whipped cream or pie spices, then you know that while it's not bad, it's not necessarily the best candy flavor to tempt American kids who are used to chocolate-covered-peanut-marshmallow-caramel-crispy crap nuggets. But unseasoned pumpkin candy still can't be any worse than those nasty little nougat-y chunks in the orange and black waxed paper. The noodle aisle was crammed with bright, crinkly packages of ramen with a festive variety of flavors like mushroom and abalone. I did a double take at "Good Good Eat Super Ramen" because, despite its pleasant title, the androgynous youngster on the package looked really, really angry. If this ramen is eaten, does it make you hostile or give you any super powers? Marmalade isn't supposed to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. These eerie little bottles contain citron jam, and since the contents don't sound appealing enough to scrape over a piece of toast, the least they could do is make the containers into cute little dolls or maybe baby animals with bows around their necks -- not gnashing little creep-totems. The canning process works for certain things like soup and peaches. Preserving such items as stuffed tomatoes, hummus and barbecue sauce in cans is probably safe enough, but you can only contemplate the aesthetic and flavor appeal of these goodies after cranking open the lid and slopping them into bowls. Judging the tastes of other peoples' cultures based on your own is unfair, but I sure am glad that I'm left out of the marketing demographic that chugs down bottles of milk-flavored soda, and saying "Milkis" makes it seem like a verb got turned into a noun for no good reason. Cherries aren't supposed to be a comic-book laser-beam shade of blue, and something so far removed from its natural state may not be the choicest thing to put in your body. But if my suspicions are correct, these cherries are used for garnishing cocktails with little umbrellas in them -- so the people getting them probably aren't that concerned. Heading for the checkout, I happened upon a modest bakery. Passing up trays of buttercream buns and almond cookies, I noticed a row of "sausage bread." These rolls are a creation of soft bread, grated onions, ketchup, mayonnaise, cheese and slices of hot dog. Okay, so H Mart has found yet another way to tap into the American junk-food vein, and surprisingly enough, the rolls are tasty as all giddyup.
H Mart is a winner-winner-chicken-dinner for sheer entertainment value, even if it doesn't have the characteristic Asian market smell. And I'm sure the cinnamon punch pallet being moved to the front will ensure many years of whiff-free shopping ahead.