It’s taken a while, but U.S. consumers have finally started to embrace the rich flavors of Korean cuisine. Korean-American chefs now rank among the top in the nation, and Korean mega-stores like H Mart have opened across the country.
The Chicago area now boasts at least five H Marts, including its first city store in the West Loop.
But even with this explosion of Korean groceries, a lot of Chicagoans — this writer included — still don’t know how to navigate the vast offerings at these stores.
This story is a part of the Worldview-Chicago Sun-Times “Hungry For Home” series, which helps newbies navigate the many international groceries in the Chicago area. Find out how to cook the Korean chicken stew dakdoritang at the Chicago Sun-Times.
To help, Worldview met up with Korean-American home cook Theo Hahn at the H Mart in Niles. Hahn grew up in a Korean-American family and watched his mother make homestyle Korean dishes. Today, he makes and ferments his own Korean chili paste, called gochujang, and cooks extensive meals for friends.
We asked Hahn to recommend a list of items for rookies to buy at a Korean grocery store (and some snacks to try in the stores’ food courts). We also threw in a few favorites of our own.
Asian pears: Crisp, juicy, paper-skinned fruits that taste like a cross between an apple and pear. They are often given as gifts in Asia.
“I like to eat them sliced raw for a snack or sliced over nyaengmyun, a cold Korean buckwheat noodle soup served in the summer,” Hahn said.
Kimchi: Pickled vegetables eaten with rice or as a condiment with meals.
“For beginners, I would recommend going with fresh kimchi instead of stuff that has been sitting around in crocks for months,” Hahn said. “It’s going to have a crispy, fresh, sauerkraut flavor with some funk — but the flavor is going to be just developing and delicious.”
Melchi: Crunchy, dried or stir-fried anchovies.
“You use them to top rice or in bibimbap (rice) as just another condiment,” Hahn said. “Sometimes they’re just salty, sometimes spicy.”
Citrus jam: Korean groceries carry a wide variety of these preserves, which are meant to be stirred into cups of hot water to make a soothing cold remedy. Many are made with lemon, grapefruit, pomelo, and citron, as well as blends of honey and ginger.
Saeujeot: Brined and slightly fermented shrimp.
“These are salty, but super delicious dabbed in a lettuce leaf stuffed with rice and Korean grilled meat — especially pork,” Hahn said.
Bulgogi and kalbi: Marinated and sliced meats for grilling that are found in the refrigerated section of the store.
“Whether you get bulgogi (thinly sliced) or kalbi (beef short rib), you can just grill these very quickly and eat them stuffed in lettuce with rice and banchan (side dishes),” Hahn said. “Bring this to your next cookout and prepare to be the hero of the barbecue.”
Ramen: Most Korean stores have entire aisles devoted to various flavors and brands of this noodle soup.
“But if you have to choose just one, I’d go with the Shin Ramyun Black. I just think it tastes the best,” Hahn said “Inside the package, you’re going to get three to four packets of vegetables and flavoring that you can use to customize the taste of your ramen. It’s spicy, delicious, and cures whatever ails you on a cold January evening. I eat it with chopped, fresh, or rehydrated shitake mushrooms, kimchi, sliced beef, scallions, and definitely a fried egg.”
Dried seaweed laver: You might know these sheets of dried seaweed as the nori that wraps maki rolls in sushi restaurants, but the Korean version is called gim and has a more toasted sesame oil note.
“You can use it to hold a bite of rice, or cut strips to sprinkle it on top of rice, or eat the smaller sheets like potato chips,” Hahn said.
Silkworm pupae: Called beondegi in Korean, this popular street snack is packed in small cans in the U.S. The little pupae come floating in a chicken soup-like broth and are chewy and chickeny. Great for dares and adventurous snackers.
Red pepper powder: The base of the fermented red pepper paste — called gochujang in Korean — it’s also one of the major flavorings in kimchi.
“In a Korean household that cooks a lot, a 5-pound bag of this red pepper powder won’t last long,” Hahn said. “But if you are not making a lot of kimchi or gochujang, you might want to go with a smaller bag. Or you could just buy prepared gochujang that adds heat along with a fermented umami depth to soups, stews, marinades, and more.”
Walnut mini-cakes: Called hodugwaja in Korean, these walnut-sized cakes hold a filling of sweet bean paste and a piece of walnut. You can usually buy them in the bakery section, and some stores even have a vendor who makes them fresh to order while customers wait.
Soju: A clear, distilled alcoholic beverage comparable to vodka.
“This is the national drink — and curse — of my people. Watch out because it’s often higher proof than other drinks you find in Chicago. … Wine nerds will often say it’s the best thing you can drink with grilled beef, and I agree,” Hahn said. “It’s fantastic with bulgogi, galbi (short ribs), or even a ribeye or hamburger. The problem is, it goes down really easy — and it’s easy to not realize how much you’ve had until it’s too late.”
A snack before shopping
When you enter Korean groceries, you’re often greeted by little restaurants or food stalls that offer grilled meats, noodle soups, tofu stews, Korean-style Chinese food, dumplings, and snacks.
Other top snacks for beginners:
Kim bap: Rice, vegetables, and meat or egg rolled in a sheet of seafood called bap.
Inari sushi: Rice and meat inside a fried tofu wrap that looks like a brown lunch bag.
Sundae: For the more adventurous eater, these noodle-filled blood sausage bites are delicious dipped in seasoned salt.
Chap chae: Stir-fried translucent noodles with meat, vegetables, and a sesame oil dressing. (Note: These packages are often labeled as stir fried vermicelli.)
Dumplings: Order a combo steamer of dumplings to try traditional Korean pork dumplings, beef dumplings, and kimchi dumplings in one plate.
Dolsat bibimbap: This dish presents several Korean staples in a hot stone bowl. It features steamed rice, topped with banchan (assorted Korean pickled or prepared vegetables), bulgogi, a fried egg, and bibimbap sauce with sesame oil, fermented soybean paste, and red pepper powder.
Other major Korean groceries in the Chicago area
H Mart: Five Chicago area locations in Glenview, Niles, Naperville, Schaumburg, and Chicago’s West Loop.
Joong Boo: Chicagoans have long depended on this medium-sized market right off the Kennedy Expressway at Kimball Avenue, but another large location opened last year in Glenview. Both also have dine-in options.
Assi Plaza: The large Korean grocery in Niles has an impressive five-stall food court featuring many traditional Korean specialties.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at email@example.com.