Are You Gonna Eat That?
The Out-of-the-Ordinary is Everyday at Hanahreum
I like grocery stores. All of the products faced out on the shelves, everything in its place. There's a sense of order and purpose in a grocery store that's reassuring and comforting to a cluttered mind; I like to linger especially in the breakfast cereal aisle, just to see what the best marketing minds in America have come up with. I used to think that if I ate every breakfast cereal there was--starting with the one on the top shelf, left, maybe Blueberry Morning--that I would gain some certain wisdom and insight into our lives and times.
A few recent trips to the HanAhReum Asian Mart haven't necessarily taught me life lessons, but walking through the aisles at this limitlessly diverting store does provide some vivid anecdotal impressions.
The supermarket-sized HanAhReum opened in August 2001 in a particularly banal strip mall across from the Double T Diner and has attracted a devoted customer base who come expecting otherwise hard-to-find produce, spices, seafood, and imported canned goods. In fact, HanAhReum is part a chain of some 15 Asian grocery stores in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. The store began by serving the local Korean-American community, and, while it has clearly expanded its reach across culinary borders into China and Japan, the core commitment is clearly still on Korean cuisine.
A visit to HanAhReum typically begins with the produce section. On a recent Saturday, the produce section was packed with customers checking out the yum-roo (young radishes for making kimchi or sweet tea), Korean mustard greens, Vietnamese peppers, Chinese broccoli, alarmingly huge specimens of daikon, and what is arguably the planet's ugliest vegetable, the knob celery, or celeriac--a gnarly, pustular dung-brown root vegetable. Not particularly a Korean, or even Asian, native, the knob celery is a useful symbol of something that distinguishes HanAhReum from typical American supermarkets, where the produce, fish, and meat have been adulterated and altered so that they barely resemble their pre-market selves.
I ran into some friends who loved the prices of the packaged ducks until they noticed that the heads were still attached. Humongous carp still have their heads attached, too, and some parents might want to have a plausible story ready to tell curious tots about the buckets of live turtles and frogs by the seafood counter. Sometimes, though, as with jellyfish, it's only the head that's for sale.
This comfort with animals and all of their parts extends past the getting of meat and fish to its preparation and consumption, too. If the only part of a chicken you've encountered over the past decade or two is its skinless, boneless breast, or if your taste in fish runs to tilapia, then home-style Korean cooking is always going to be a little distressing--what exactly, you may wonder from bite to bite, are you eating now?
The store's friendly if somewhat ramshackle prepared-food counter provides a good place for immersion in home-style Korean cuisine. Separately operated, this food operation, named Mannarang ( 612-9029), regularly serves about two dozen traditional Korean and Japanese dishes, like daego jim (steamed marinated codfish head) and bibim nangmun (sliced beef and vegetables over buckwheat noodles). Novices will appreciate the photographs of the finished product and, in most cases, printed descriptions of the preparations and an accompanying photograph of all of the ingredients.
I enjoyed a bottomless bowl of fish-cake noodle soup ($6.95), which had an assertive and fragrant broth. I also liked the flavor of the pork barbecue ($7.95), marinated pork stir-fried with garlic and cloves. An order of tukboki--seasoned rice cake with vegetables and fish cake ($5.95)--turned out to be something of a Korean version of macaroni 'n' cheese and was surprisingly spicy, if a bit monotonous. A shared order of vegetable tempura ($4.95) was disappointingly heavy on the batter and light on the vegetable. Truth be told, everything everyone else was eating looked better than what we had. (The sushi bar was closed when we visited, due to a family illness).
If there's any true fear factor at HanAhReum, it's in the canned-goods aisle, which features Venusian-looking grass jelly and litchi nuts; more brands of mackerel, ackee, and seasoned tuna than you thought existed; and, of course, the always popular silkworm pupa ($1.99). Mmmm, silkworm pupa.
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