"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Hamlet said to his friend. Bewildered customers who encounter the unimagined variety of foods at the Lotte Oriental grocery store in Rockville are sure to agree. Yet Lotte is a clean, well-lighted place and feels less intimidating than many ethnic groceries, even though it stocks 7,000 different items, most of them unfamiliar to Western cooks.
Most startling is the "kimchi bar" of pickled and preserved foods made in Lotte's kitchens. Imagine an ordinary salad bar, its stainless steel pans filled not with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers but with tiny octopus in spicy sauce, seasoned sesame leaves, kelp in bean sauce, hot cucumber, three kinds of pickled garlic, soy sauce beans, baby clams in soy sauce, pollock roe, dried red tuna chunks, spiced radish, oysters, cuttlefish and seaweed, and a mind-boggling assortment of tiny dried fish in hot sauce.
Luckily for the uninitiated, toothpicks on the counter invite tasting. Kimchi bar items vary daily. With the peak selection on Saturdays, Koreans and Japanese rub elbows trying Lotte's versions of their countries' specialties, while people from other ethnic groups gingerly spear a thread of pickled seaweed or a piece of dried squid, then decide it tastes good enough to spoon into a plastic container for purchase.
Runner-up for exotica and nirvana for shoppers seeking the unusual is the produce section, one of the best in the Washington area. Yes, Lotte has the typical assortment of ginger root, snow peas and cabbages found in other Oriental groceries, but less familiar members of the cabbage family such as yoi choy, choy sum, mustard cabbage and bok choy add interest. It's fun to imagine the whirl of kimchi-making activity that will take place in the kitchens of the Korean families who can be seen dumping box after box of cabbage into the trunks of their cars.
Cabbage is only the beginning. Though Lotte sells ordinary button mushrooms, more excitement is created by the fresh wood ear, oyster, shiitake and enoki mushrooms. The long white daikon radish is now a familiar supermarket vegetable. But what about daikon sprouts? Garlic we know, but garlic leaves? Perilla or sesame leaves, garland chrysanthemum, fresh ginko nuts, lotus root, burdock root, taro, bitter melons, long beans and many more vegetables challenge the imagination.
Gallon-size jars of cabbage and radish kimchi fill one whole aisle of refrigerated cases, lending support to the idea that Korean people consider a meal without kimchi dull. Their traditional reliance on kimchi grew out of the need to preserve vegetables for consumption during Korea's harsh winters. And though fresh vegetables are now available year round, Koreans have not lost their taste for the spicy condiment nor for the other flavors of their traditional cuisine: garlic, soy sauce, sesame seeds, ginger and hot peppers.
For a larger selection of miso (fermented bean) pastes and bean curd, the shopper would probably have to fly to Seoul or Tokyo. And for a better selection of sauces, condiments, oils, canned products and packaged pickled, dried and salted foods, the customer would require a swing through the Orient.
With 12,000 square feet, Lotte is the largest Oriental grocery on the East Coast, according to company president Sung Rhee -- about the same size as the average specialty food market and almost a third the size of the average supermarket. Unlike most of its competitors, which concentrate their stock primarily on the food of only one country in the Far East, Lotte's stock is pan-Asian. The staff tries its best with limited English to help puzzled shoppers, Rhee says.
"When American people ask questions, we will explain. Newcomers may be put off when they find out something is made with seaweed or another ingredient they don't know, but once they try it, they like it," says Rhee. "Everybody is welcome to taste items from the kimchi bar. Veterans of the Korean War know kimchi and like it. And American people come because they can buy fast, takeout Oriental food that is less expensive than carryout from restaurants."
The Oriental equivalent of a gourmet grocery traiteur counter offers freshly prepared sushi, available Wednesday through Saturday, fried fish cakes and freshly made vegetable tempura, fried shrimp, vegetable croquettes and mandoo dumplings. Catering to cooks in a hurry like the gourmet supermarkets do, Lotte sells ready-sliced and marinated meats -- beef for bulgoki and sukiyaki, beef short ribs for kalbi and pork for doeji bulgoki and stir fries.
Packages of cleaned vegetables and fish or meat with seasoning sauces are no-prep, ready-to-eat-in-minutes meals. And Lotte's numerous refrigerator and freezer cases are chock full of dumplings, steamed buns, wonton skins, seafood sausages, fish cakes and cooked foods of every description.
Rhee also prides himself on how clean Lotte is kept, which he feels distinguishes his grocery from others and increases its appeal to non-Orientals. "Cleaning is a priority. Evenings before we close, everybody cleans up. A cleaning team comes in every week to clean and wax floors. We have bright lighting because we're sure we're carrying fresh food and have nothing to hide," he says.
"Some Oriental groceries are small and they are not clean because they are overcrowded," he goes on. "Most started with less money than we did, so their space, shelves and refrigerators are old and small, less clean. With more money and a bigger place the food turns over faster, which means we carry fresher food and customers can pick up food comfortably."
Similarly, "Small stores buy less, pay more and charge more," claims Rhee, who is able to eliminate the middleman by buying staples in large quantities and dealing directly with farmers. He and his brothers own a kimchi factory and food import and distribution company based in Columbia, with branches in Korea, Japan and Mainland China.
Despite success, Rhee feels frustrated. He says, "I want to sell more frozen food and more vegetables. I want to offer more cooked Korean and Japanese foods for carryout customers. I want to introduce all Oriental foods to Americans. But space is a big problem."
And although on Saturdays the fish counter is overflowing with eels, octopus, squid, shrimp, clams, abalone, oysters and all sorts of fin fish, Rhee says, "Oriental people like fish. Here the fish section is too small. We need more space to carry more fish."
So he is planning a fall opening of a 25,000-square-foot store in Fairfax. Lotte currently caters primarily to the approximately 70,000 Koreans living in the Washington area by stocking a large number of Korean ingredients and a smaller number of other Oriental foods. Its clientele is 60 percent Korean, 20 percent Japanese, 15 percent Chinese and 5 percent other, according to Rhee. But at the new store he intends to carry more Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Philippine items.
Rhee's office manager and English interpreter Andy Min describes the company's philosophy. "Like Giant and Safeway, which are getting bigger to meet demand, we want to carry more food. So we need a bigger store. We want to introduce new foods to Americans and the foods of different countries in Asia to other Orientals and show them how to cook them."
Translating his boss' words, he says, "Our motto is 'more, cleaner and fresher food for everybody at better prices.' "
Lotte is located at 11790 Parklawn Dr., Rockville. Hours are 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
Gail Forman is an English professor at Montgomery College and freelance writer who has traveled extensively in the Orient.