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A World of Bargains: Asian Markets Attract Chefs and Budget-Minded Shoppers

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The food we eat is one of the defining aspects of who we are, experiencing an ethnic supermarket for the first time is both a learning experience, and a great way to become immersed in new foods and cultures.Video by A.J. Chavar/washingtonpost.com

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By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

It's a busy Saturday morning at the Super H Mart in Fairfax City, where scores of people navigate carts down aisles, stocking up on the week's groceries. In the center of the seafood section, Yoon-Hee Heather Choi, a native of Seoul and a Fairfax resident since 1993, holds court as she leans over ice-filled bins showcasing the day's catch: silver mackerel, shimmery saury and whole squid, eyes aligned like dominoes.

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"That squid looks great for calamari," says a man next to her.

"No," she says, then points to the fish counter behind her. "Go to the fishmonger and ask for small ones. They're sweeter." Whole squids slightly longer than a man's hand sell for $2.99 a pound, while smaller calamari the length of a finger cost $1.99, either size a fraction of the price at a Whole Foods Market ($5.99 a pound) or Giant ($8.99 for a frozen 13-ounce box).

As a resident foodnik who gives tours to users of the message boards Egullet.com and Donrockwell.com, Choi, 47, knows the ins and outs of this store and others like it, such as Grand Mart in Falls Church, Fresh Mart in Springfield and H Mart in Merrifield. Although the stores, all Korean-owned, cater to the suburbs' Asian communities, they're attractive to anyone looking to save a few dollars without compromising freshness.

First opened under the name Han Ah Reum, which loosely translates to "warm heart," H Mart was founded by Il Yeon Kwon in Queens, N.Y., in 1982. The name eventually was shortened to H Mart, and the products in individual stores were diversified according to the demographics of the neighborhood. Each of the company's 32 stores nationwide covers 25,000 to 80,000 square feet and stocks nearly 25,000 products.

The newest H Mart in the region opened in Gaithersburg in December, several months after one in Annandale opened in July. The Fairfax Super H Mart opened in 2002, and the Merrifield store has been around since 1997.

All three are in communities where Asians make up 20 to 40 percent of the population, according to the most recent census figures. But Super H Mart spokesman Jimmy Kim said from the company's New Jersey headquarters that only half of its customers nationwide are of Asian descent.

Like the Harris Teeter supermarket chain, which reported 10 percent gains in sales last year, the H Mart corporation claims increased profits and cites as evidence the continued opening of new stores. This is in contrast to Whole Foods' 30 percent drop in net income in the third quarter of 2008 and losses this past year for Safeway. Giant's profits increased a modest 1 percent in the third quarter, according to spokesman Jamie Miller.

Lower prices make the Asian superstores an alluring alternative in tough economic times, but it's the breadth of otherwise tough-to-find ingredients that makes them an invaluable resource for adventurous home cooks and some of the District's top chefs. H Mart and Super H Mart customers include Michel Richard of Citronelle and Central, Haidar Karoum of Proof and Scott Drewno of Wolfgang Puck's the Source.

Diversity is the draw. Although Karoum gets most of what he needs for the restaurant from his purveyors, he has long shopped for himself at H Mart and did so when he was testing dishes while Proof was under construction. "You get inspiration from stuff that you don't see regularly," says Karoum, 34, who was chef at Asia Nora before opening Proof. "You get a taste of other cultures."

For the Source, Drewno shops for Asian herbs, noodles and other dry goods at the Merrifield store on Saturday mornings. "H Mart! I love this place," says Drewno, 33. Ever since he was a 22-year-old cook in Las Vegas at Puck's Chinois, he says, he has relied on Asian markets.

On a recent visit, Drewno parsed the greens in the produce section near the entrance. "See, all these are labeled Vietnamese vegetables, but this has bitter leaves. And this is cho sum, which is a flowering stem that's very mild," he says. "They're totally different. And these bean leaves are really pea shoots."


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