One of our favorite ways to learn about another country is to peruse its grocery stores. The aisles of produce and dry goods are telling about people’s cooking and eating habits, and they’re perfect places to buy gifts and souvenirs when traveling. Luckily, in a country like the United States, stores specializing in imported goods from another country are pretty easy to find, and one of our all-time favorites to shop is the Korean market.
It’s possible that you’ve stumbled upon an H Mart or have shopped at another Korean market in the past. But if you’re new to the experience, the plethora of unknown ingredients and brands might seem intimidating at first. So we employed the help of Sol Han, head chef at NYC’s LittleMad. He has some expert tips on how to navigate a Korean market, his favorite brands to seek out and the must-have snacks to bring home with your grocery haul.
Start With the Essentials…
Every expert home cook knows that the whole process is easier and more successful if the fridge and pantry are stocked with essential ingredients. In your average American household, these likely mean things like eggs, butter, olive oil, pasta and rice. But the Korean essentials are a bit different and pack a flavorful punch.
“In a Korean market, five cooking essentials would be the mother sauces and ingredients — soy sauce, sesame oil, gochujang (Korean chili paste with fermented soybeans), gochugaru (dried red chili flakes) and kimchi,” Han says. “With these ingredients, you can pretty much cook all the classic Korean dishes.”
Even if you aren’t cooking Korean food, these can go a long way in your kitchen. Sesame oil is delicious in salad dressings, gochujang is great for marinating meats and soy sauce adds a savory, umami depth to just about anything.
…Then Expand Your Horizons
Now that you have the essentials in your cart, it’s time to get familiar with some lesser-known ingredients that might not be on your radar. “I love the caramelized umami and sweetness of black garlic,” Han says. To make black garlic, you essentially age garlic using the Maillard reaction by cooking it very slow and slow for several weeks. It’s been used in Asian cuisine for centuries, and you substitute it for fresh garlic in whatever you’re cooking.
“Yondu is another umami bomb,” Han says. It’s a fermented soy sauce product packed with natural MSG that really intensifies all dishes.” You can add the all-purpose seasoning to stir frys, pasta, salads and homemade dips to give them a flavor boost.
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Know Your Brands
In your neighborhood grocery store, you likely have favorite brands or swear by specific private labels for certain items. If it’s your first or second time in a Korean market, it’s likely that very few labels will look familiar. That leaves a lot of room for discovery and experimentation, but if you need a little direction, Han has a few favorites to try. “I always go for the classics, brands that I recognize and used ever since I was a kid and even living in Korea,” he says. “Ottogi comes to mind for ingredients, and Nongshim is king when it comes to noodles and snacks.”
Over the years, we’ve personally come to love a few modern Korean food brands that should definitely be on our radar. Mother In Law’s makes wonderful kimchi, gochujang and gochugaru, and We Love You is our go-to for sauces and marinades.
Don’t Forget the Snacks
Let this be a fair warning: you will get lost in the snack aisle at a Korean market, and whatever you bring home will be damn delicious. Honey butter chips, Choco Boys and Turtle Chips are some of the tastiest out there, and they should be fairly easy to find in most Korean markets. For Han, his favorites span from nostalgic to modern. “Some of my favorite Korean snacks right now are Bungeoppang, the classic fish shaped pastry filled with red bean,” he says. “I grew up eating them, and at LittleMad we serve a savory riff with scallions and black garlic butter. I’m also really into Nongshim’s black truffle shrimp chips.”
Get to Cooking
Now that your shopping trip is complete, it’s time to start cooking. If you’re looking for recipes, Koreatown: A Cookbook is a favorite, and Maangchi is one of the most iconic Korean cooks out there. Or search for one of Han’s favorite classic recipes. “Cooking should be creative and fun, but if I was focused on the five cooking essentials I have listed to purchase, I would cook a classic kimchi stew,” he says. “So simple — with either pork ribs or belly balanced with tangy and spicy kimchi, it hits the spot every time.”
If you want to try out classic Korean flavors but don’t have a lot of time, Han also has a versatile and simple recipe. “We have this sesame rice wine dressing that we use with our yellowtail and Asian pear sashimi, but you can use it for anything from salads to dipping sauce for grilled barbecue items,” he says. “It’s dead simple: three parts canola oil, one part soy, one part sugar, one half part rice wine vinegar and some part sesame seeds.”
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