Grocery Run: H-Mart in Central Square
There’s a new player in the Tufts-area grocery scene, and I think you should check it out. Korean-American grocery H-Mart, which is one of the largest Asian grocery chains in the country, opened in a spacious storefront just off Central Square.
It occupies a fantastic location – literally right in front of the stairs to the T and just across the street from one of Central’s major bus stops. It fills several important niches in the Cambridge-Somerville commercial community and in Central Square. Central needed a large, lower-price option to compete with Whole Foods, and the wider area needed a big East Asian market after the 2013 closing of Miso Market in Porter reduced the options to Ebisuya in Medford and Reliable in Union Square.
As a grocery store, H-Mart has several things going for it. For one, it has fantastic produce, both familiar and exotic. I think it has to do with the higher turnaround and their own purported quality standards; the price is also very good. The fruit in particular is the best I’ve seen in the city, though most of it is not organic. This is especially true for fruits like melons, kiwis, plums, and pears that are popular in Korea (and the rest of East Asia, where they are often eaten like dessert) but can be sometimes hit-or-miss because they’re usually imported to Boston from elsewhere; at H-Mart thus far I have not had a bad experience with any of them. Another thing that H-Mart does well is fish. Like many Asian markets, it puts them on display prominently, and you can see they are fresh and (not) smell them. Its fishmonger is full-service and carries not only farm-raised, commodity fish but wild-caught varieties, shellfish and a few more exotic things. In my opinion, H-Mart has the best selection for the price on this side of the river and compares to the quality you’d find at Whole Foods.
When it comes to the rest of the store, the sheer variety makes a concise description next to impossible. In some ways, I think the novelty of so many of the options is one of the best parts. If you’re not accustomed to the foods you’re seeing, shopping is almost an adventure in itself as you can explore the possibilities of flavors and ingredients you wouldn’t typically see. I’d recommend visiting (maybe with friends, so you can all get your fix of Pocky, Prawn Chips, and other Asian snack favorites) and seeing what catches your eye. For me personally, these ten items are favorites that have found themselves in my cart time and time again:
- Okinawan Sweet Potatoes: Nutty, dense, with a texture like a russet and a much richer flavor than an orange sweet potato, these varieties of the starchy ‘white’ sweet potato have antioxidants like those found in blueberries. Their flesh is purple-blue and their skin is white. A word of warning: they’re much more calorie dense than white potatoes or orange sweet potatoes, but of course they also taste amazing and are highly nutritious. Best when baked in an oven at around 350 degrees for an hour to make them caramelize.
- Kabocha Squash: I personally think that kabocha beats butternut and pumpkin ten times out of ten. It has a stronger, nutty pumpkin flavor and a great, dense texture. The skin is also fully edible. It can be lightly cooked to make a great starchy side, or pureed into a soup or mash. It plays well with mixed spice and butter and is really, really good in pie. It’s also fantastically good for you and low in calories, and H-Mart sells it all year round near the sweet potatoes.
- Seasonal Fruit: H-Mart has been my go-to place for fruit since it opened. The selection is very seasonally dependent, but they obviously go to some trouble to acquire the fruits that are ripe at the time they’ve being sold because I’ve had nothing but good results with figs, champagne mangoes, melons, pears, apples, and persimmons when I bought them during their season.
- Chinese Chives/Buchu (and Buchu Kimchi): Found in a clamshell, these Asian aliums are mildly garlicky and make a great ingredient with eggs or stir-fried meat. The kimchi that H-Mart sells made with them is my favorite of the varieties on display.
- Sun Noodle Fresh Ramen: All the best American ramen joints get their noodles from Sun Noodle. Their version of instant ramen (found with the other noodles in the refrigerated section) blows the fry-dried packs of Cup Noodle out of the MSG-laden water. The noodles take less than two minutes to prepare in boiling water and the soup is a real tare concentrated soup base that is mixed up in the bowl itself – gourmet fast food at its best!
- Duck Eggs: Duck eggs have several things going for them. For one, they all taste like free range eggs – gamier and eggier, because of the way that ducks are raised, a bonus in my book. Secondly, duck eggs are 20% bigger than chicken eggs, but have twice as much protein and fat, meaning they are richer and have less water in their white. When you cook them, this means the yolk doesn’t dry up as easily and the white won’t spread out too much when poached or fried. H-Mart sells them in packages of six next to the chicken eggs.
- Dried Shrimp: These tiny, dried shrimp are a fantastic natural source of glutamic acid. While they don’t really replace the wet version, they’re fantastic as a flavor enhancer.
- Flavored Seeds: Sold in little paper or foil bags in the dry good section, I love the flavors they used. Particularly good are the five-spice-flavored Soy Sauce Watermelon Seeds, the Green Tea Pumpkin Seeds, and the Coconut Sunflower seeds.
- Steamed Buns: H-Mart sells a huge variety of steamed buns in big, family-size packages. When you’re very busy, they’re a great heat-and-eat option.
- Thai Spices and Curry Paste: H-Mart, in the canned section next to the freezers, sells the well-regarded Maesri brand of Thai curry pastes. They also sell Chaokoh coconut milk, Thai fish sauce, Kaffir Lime Leaves, and Thai (labeled Taiwanese) basil – all the basics for Thai curry!
Cover image source.