A love letter to H Mart

This morning Mike, his face partially illuminated by his bright iPhone screen, laughed as I meandered around our curtained room.

“What?” I said.

“It’s Adam. He said he would pay $100 for Sushi Palace right now,” smiled Mike, reading over the text.

Sushi Palace is our go-to sushi joint in Somerville. No matter the day of the week, the all-you-can-eat sushi eatery is always packed to the brim. The host/server, an older Asian woman, always smiles when she sees us – a seemingly out-of-place expression on her serious face – before seating us at our spot at the end of the sushi bar.

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This is a food group for me.

It’s not the only Asian eatery where we’re regulars. We can often also be found at Kimchi Hana, a South Plainfield strip mall Korean BBQ eatery in which only the “i” in “sushi,” a subhead under the restaurant name, is illuminated.

That’s only the beginning. Kuay Tiew Noodles in Somerville, Pho Today in Bridgewater, and Roosterspin in New Brunswick are also our go-to spots. But in the wake of coronavirus, many of these eateries, which often feature fresh fish or intricate dishes that need to be enjoyed on-the-spot, have shut their doors completely rather than offer any takeout or delivery.

So even though we’ve been eating like kings at home – Mike has cooked up dishes such as leg of lamb, Nashville hot chicken, steak tacos and salmon burgers – we’re missing the Asian specialties that are parts of our regular diet.

Kimchi Hana
Mike and I at Kimchi Hana.

Unlike the many people that are strangely avoiding Asian businesses because they fear coronavirus (you do realize these people live in America, right?) we headed to H Mart, an Asian grocery store, in Edison the other day. Unlike any other grocery store I have been to yet during the pandemic, they gave every customer entering the store a squirt of hand sanitizer and a pair of disposable gloves and wiped down each cart as it was returned. 

Walking up and down the aisles of the colossal produce section was an immediate blast from the past to out trips to Vietnam last year and Thailand two years before that. Bok choy. Chinese eggplant. Jackfruit. Papaya. It was like roaming the dark, smoky streets of Hanoi only months before, when we peered into every food cart saddled on the sides of the lawless roads and pointed to what we wanted before Vietnamese vendors showed us the prices on a grungy calculator. We bagged it all up and piled it into our cart, not really sure how we would use it – or even cut it – but sure it couldn’t be too hard to figure out.

It only got better from there. The seafood section was like a small exotic aquarium, as we pointed out the eels, squid and porgy. Even the frozen and packaged foods were exciting – sections I totally avoid at ShopRite – as I wondered if the calories in those dumplings, mochi and seafood-flavored crackers were worth it (the answer is yes. It’s always yes).

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Our homemade bao buns.

Once more, I felt the excitement I have felt wandering the Asian destinations that have become permanently embedded in my brain. For the first time in weeks, that stone of dread which sits in my body after thinking about the international pandemic seemed to be missing, and instead, I felt the way only a vacation to an exotic locale can make you feel – like the possibilities are endless, your energy is unstoppable and your face kind of hurts from smiling. I may have only been in Edison, but as far as my appetite was concerned, I was back in the midst of my favorite tastes in the world.

Back home, we unpacked an ungodly amount of groceries, including some bao buns we figured out how to steam in my rice cooker, pork belly Mike cooked on the grill and some fish cakes, reminiscent of my favorite side dish from Kimchi Hana. We also had some kimchi in the fridge that our very talented friend Robert had made for us, some expired Hoisin sauce and even a salt-and-oil copycat dipping sauce that Mike made in deference to his favorite sauce also from Kimchi Hana.

The meal lacked the obviously dated by somehow even more welcoming Asian decor at Kimchi Hana. It didn’t include the smiling servers which sometimes come over to do a shot of sake with us. There was no grate covering coals in the center of the table, sending up steam as meats cook up in front of us over clinging glasses of wine and bottles of Asahi.

But it did have a taste of what we’ve been missing – desperately – among our home-cooked meals. And for now, that’ll have to do.

 

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