I didn’t actually drink the dishwashing soap.
I had been wandering the Disneylandesque warehouse of exoticness at Asian superstore H Mart for about two hours, marveling at things I never knew existed, let alone were edible and yours for the choosing at one of Aurora’s greatest attractions. I’d been drooling over a Smithsonian-sized collection of dumplings and buns from Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Japan, points and cultures east that are catered to among the
endless thousands of eggplants, sauces, noodles, peppers and unbelievable varieties of rice. Everything looks like candy in this store. Clearly, packaging and marketing with bright colors, vivid fonts and anime design draws you to what’s inside. Fish and seafood smoked, salted, dried, cut, pounded or stewed in more ways than I thought there were ways adorn miles of shelves and cases. The packages harbor tastes that explode with flavor and novelty inside your mouth. Or not. Some flavors are clearly acquired. What looked like friendly mozzarella cheese sticks were actually some kind of pungent dried fish tubes. I’m not there yet.
My fellow shoppers, mostly Asian, are almost all friendly and helpful when I stare stupidly at what looked like figs but turned out to be fish roe. Most packaged items have at least a word or two of English suggesting that what’s inside is pudding or peppers, but you’re on your own in the vegetable department, where only a guide or research can offer advice on which of the eight varieties of eggplants to buy.
Here’s the warning for those interested in going on a field trip to this or any of the area’s foreign markets: ask. The mylar container looked just like my daughter’s shiny juice packets. Images of some kind of citrusy fruit and pears and maybe berries jumped off the silver plastic pouch. “It’s soap to wash dishes,” Brandon, our guide said, chuckling at our naivete. Brandon bridges two worlds in Aurora. Having pretty much grown up here, he’s settled into a life filled with fast-food and chain stores. But harking from a large Korean family that owns and runs H Mart, he confidently explains what’s behind the alluring packages. Asian food packaging is anything but generic.
While the store caters to Asian immigrants and Far East foodies with selections of about 100 different kinds and brands of rice, fruits and vegetables that you will never, ever see in another Colorado grocery store, a fresh and frozen fish selection that rivals what you can find on either U.S. coast, there’s a surprisingly large number of Hispanic shoppers in the store, adapting common items to a vastly different cuisine.
Nothing does justice to what’s inside this parallel universe than this advice: You have to see this for yourself. Here’s a small sample of some of the things you’ll find inside.
Made mostly from white fish, they look mostly like breakfast links. Eaten by themselves, sometimes in stir-fries and often in soups, most have a strong fish taste, they’re salty and sometimes even smoked.
As ubiquitous as ginseng has become even in American culture, we’re posers. H Mart gets out the big guns in a department dedicated to one of Korea’s oldest and more venerable ginseng product producers. We’re not talking ground supplements in gel caps or faintly fragrant tea. These are pungent concoctions of select strains and lines of ginseng available either here, or in Seoul. Think Courvoisier or Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Extracts, infusions, lotions, drinks, tablets and I’m not sure what else are packaged in crimson and gold with the same care and class as the world’s most exclusive perfumes. The producer has been at this since 1899. A premium extract will set you back almost $300. Popular teas are about $40 a box.
Remember when the long English varieties added a whole new world of novelty to Colorado’s cucumber collection? You have no idea. Thai cukes, Indian cukes, something that looks kind of like an English variety are but a few of long, round and furry water-vegetables.
Even if you don’t eat these, you have to bring one home for everyone to gape at. Also called Indian Bitter Melon, these rubbery-spiked gems are pure eye candy. Used mostly in Asian stir fries in many cultures, they’re bitter and crunchy, not unlike the taste of hops.
Popped Sorghum Cakes
While Americans see this as cattle fodder or the basis for pungent syrup, Asians have long used sorghum in all kinds of ways. It’s a grain, not unlike corn. So you can pop it, roast it like quinoa or even stew it. It makes for amazing side dishes, snacks and even cereals.
There’s a wide assortment of canned jellies, most only marginally sweet and created from starch or pectin. Not unlike American cranberry jelly, they provide color to a plate more than anything and are usually served as a dessert. This one is actually made from grass,and it kind of tastes like that, too. Citrusy, but not unpleasant. Usually mixed with fruit or even canned milk. Another acquired taste I need to acquire.
Tread softly. If your kid thinks gravy on his mashed potatoes is pushing the envelope, leave this thing behind. If you linger among the sharp aromas in the ripe French cheese aisle at other grocery stores or think the docks in Portland, Maine, smell like lunch, this might work for you. Brandon said all you really need to know. “These things smell like hell and taste like heaven.” The odor of the large and spiky Durian fruit is so bad, and I mean bad, that it’s forbidden on trains, buses and hotels in most Asian cities. No kidding. With warnings like that, we just had to try it. You can watch us wrestle this thing for lunch at TheAuroraMagazine.com. Search for “durian.” It’s surprisingly easy to cut open, despite its formidable size and armor. The smell is unlike anything else. Think road kill or sweaty socks left in a plastic bag with hints of overripe grapes, hyacinth and rotten onions. The texture is custardy, a little like congealed snot. The flavor? Heavy cream with almonds, egg yolks and a sweet boozy wine. Very pleasant. I’ve never tasted anything like it. I can’t get the stench off my hands. It set us back $16.
The fish department alone is worth the trip here. The only thing like this are real fish markets on U.S. coasts. Here in Aurora, a fleet of fish mongers will do anything you want with the virtual catalogue of fresh fish and shellfish. Pompano, yes, pompano, various salmons, cods, bass and even grouper take up the entire corner of this huge store. Most of what you can get is sashimi quality. But today, among an already exotic selection, a tray of colorful parrot fish beckons. Who knew? In the Philippines and southeast Asian, these are a treat. A little like sea bass, they’re easily fried or baked, but grilled is most recommended. These and other fish are handled and prepared any way you want them. Filleted, skinned, scaled, whatever.
Chicken and Duck Feet
Don’t sniff at these. China imports millions of pounds of chicken feet each year because demand is so high. Recipes vary, but most involve cooking them in oil or steam before adding vinegars, peppers or other sauces. They’re like American chicken wings but with crunch. I have to admit, though, in the meat case under plastic wrap, this stands in contrast to everything tantalizing in the store.
Part flower, part fruit and part alien, this unusual russet-sized bulb tastes a little like a sour, creamy kiwi fruit. It has similar black seeds inside. It’s fragrant and reportedly low in calories. Varieties come from Asia as well as Mexico.