Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?
I was feeling in need of some adventure the other day, so I grabbed my passport and shuffled my wing tips on over to a place I had read about in the business section recently, but had somehow never noticed in my travels. Not that this is place is difficult to miss; it is a non-descript building in a suburban strip mall, in perhaps the most forgettable town I know — Federal Way, Washington. Harry Potter must have loaned his invisibility cloak to this place. Verily, it disappears from sight.
My field trip destination was a place by the beguiling name of H-Mart — merely typing those six characters makes me suppress a yawn. Still, I had been intrigued by the article I read, which announced that this Korean-owned, New Jersey-headquartered outfit was expanding into the Puget Sound region with new stores in Lakewood and in the former Nordstrom Rack building in downtown Seattle. Typically, I cannot read beyond the first five words of such articles without lapsing into narcolepsy, but this one was different. Obviously.
The part that perked me up, that stimulated the culinary cortex portion of my brain, was that H-Mart locations feature extensive fresh produce and fresh fish sections. Connecting the dots, we have Korean ownership and lots of square feet devoted to my most treasured areas of any grocery store. Add to this that there is an existing H-Mart less than a mile from my favorite new cantina, a reclaimed burger joint called Los Amigos that has the best menudo I have yet tasted.
Walking through the parking lot, I noticed a surprising number of people emerging from the invisible building as if appearing out of thin air. The parking lot was full of shoppers and I was the lone Caucasian among them — not an alarming situation, but noticeable nonetheless. One thing I have learned as an eating professional is that when dining at so-called “ethnic” restaurants, the fewer funky white boys the better. My expectations began to rise.
Once inside, I had further confirmation that I was indeed not in Kansas anymore. Describing H-Mart as having “extensive produce and fresh fish sections” is damning with faint praise. The produce section alone occupies about an acre of property, at least enough to locate a soccer pitch. I saw fresh greens there that I never knew existed, and fruits that sort of scared me in an Andrew Zimmern kind of way. I am not sure why a store needs to stock 46 different kinds of yakisoba noodles, but apparently there is a market for them. H-Mart meat bears special mention. Not only do you have all the usual as well as decidedly unusual cuts (all at rock-bottom prices) but you also have such products as frozen bricks of pig blood. Of course, there are also pig trotters, snouts, tails, intestines, on and on ad infinitum if you go for that kind of stuff — and I do. In addition to your basic beef, pork, and chicken, H-Mart’s meat section included venison, pheasant, chukar, guinea fowl, and several savage beasts that would require a translator to identify.
My head was already buzzing when I reached the fish counter, at which point I almost needed a defibrillator. A 30-foot live tank featured swimming Dungeness crab on sale for $5.99 a pound, which is simply ridiculous. My local market brags about their “cooked today” dungies that they sell for $12.99. Scores of live tilapia and striped bass finned in a second tank, and a third housed several alarming-sized octopuses, who were most assuredly alive. On ice were probably three dozen different kinds of fresh fish and shellfish, including a mountain of the only head-on shrimp I have seen in the Puget Sound area lately. Does that Asian recipe you found require a sea squirt? H-Mart has them live. They carry piles of fresh squid, as well as the only cuttlefish I can remember having seen in the United States. More good news: they carry a ton of whole fish, which they will clean, scale, trim, and fillet to order. Like chicken, lamb, and everything else, fish is best with the bones in, grilled whole. Don’t try to customize your H-Mart order, though, as the gentlemen mongers wielding the large, sharp knives behind the counter don’t habla Inglés. No matter — a sign above them explains your options. Just decide what you want, point at it, and hold up the corresponding number of fingers. It all works.
The sign I didn’t see at first was the one about not taking any pictures in the fish section. There I was, happily snapping away, when a very cross Korean woman poked me in the ribs. “NO PICTURE,” she said, pointing to the all-too-obvious overhead sign, her English phrasing nearly perfect. Lots of practice, I figure. “You delete now.” While I found this most curious, I complied with the directive, and she watched me trash can my lovely photos. All my photos — except this one:
H-Mart’s fish section is certainly not a paragon of political correctness. They sell fish products there that would induce apoplexy among the good people who compile the Monterey Bay Aquarium Fish Watch list. Still, they take the time to label every piscine item as Farmed or Wild, and they include the country of origin. Not even my upscale Metropolitan Market takes the trouble to do that. At least at H-Mart you can choose for yourself the level of culinary correctness you desire.
Also, cooks are warned that this is not Whole Paycheck Foods, where you can select superior product while blind-folded. H-Mart features an amazing variety and some unbelievably fresh product, but it’s definitely a caveat emptor situation. Home cooks are advised to be able to distinguish between fresh and off-fresh product.
Tempted though I was by the sea squirts, I ended up buying a couple of clear, bright-eyed striped bass that were US-farmed – they are also an MBA Fish Watch “Best Choice” for sustainability — and had them gutted and scaled free of charge. Stripers in hand, I then swung past the to-go grill and ordered the Number 10: sautéed cuttlefish in a spicy red sauce with a generous side of kimchi. Hungry, I ate with abandon. It was a delicious and satisfying way to conclude the field trip. Once back home, I stuffed the striped bass with onion, leek, lemon, and fresh herbs and grilled them at 650 degrees over propane. Charcoal would have been better, but it was raining. Eating-wise, they were firm, sweet, and delicious.
Driving back from H-Mart and reflecting on the experience, those Dylan lyrics above took on a decidedly personal meaning — there is definitely something going on here. I am an adventurous eater, to say the least, but I don’t know any restaurants or even any people hereabouts who are cooking with sea squirts or large quantities of pig blood . . . yet apparently, there are. I wish I had a recipe for some of those crazy vegetable greens I saw, or (even better), I wish I knew a Korean woman who could show me what she has been doing with them for the last 70 years. Unbeknownst to me, there’s been some crazy eating going on here, right under my snout. And I want to get in on it.
Striped Bass: Stuffed and Grilled
2-3 whole striped bass, gutted and scaled
Half a lemon, thinly sliced (squeeze the other half and reserve the juice)
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
Half a sweet onion, thinly sliced
White part of one leek, roughly chopped
Italian parsley, chopped
Olive oil and reserved lemon juice
Salt and pepper
With a sharp knife, score the outside of the fish down to the backbone, three times per side.
Make a vinaigrette with the lemon juice and olive oil. Mix together the onion, garlic, leek, and parsley and drizzle with half the vinaigrette.
Season the inside of the bass cavities liberally with salt and pepper. Stuff the bass with the onion mixture and insert lemon wedges. Tie fish with butcher’s twine to keep the mixture inside.
Pour the remaining vinaigrette over the outside of the fish, being sure to get the dressing into the knife cuts. Season liberally.
Get your grill good and hot and carefully lay the fish on the grill, being careful to keep the stuffing contained within the cavity. Cook five minutes and flip once. The idea is to get the skin nice and crispy so that it stays intact and does not tear apart.
This is a nice summery dish, so serve it with a tossed salad and a decent Albariño, chilled near to freezing.