Among the most frequently asked shopping questions in my fish class lately has been "How is fish at H-Mart in Burlington?" Unfortunately, I couldn't answer this question until now because I haven't been to H-Mart. But last week, I finally went, and have a report for you.
If you've never been to H-Mart, let me give you an overview. H-Mart is a chain for huge Asian grocery stores located all over the US. The first one in Metro Boston has recently opened in Burlington. It's been the buzz of the town ever since. It's a Disneyland of Asian Food with all the good and bad sides of Disneyland. In other words -- it's massive, impressive, but probably not the deepest cultural experience one can have.
Janet (my wonderful assistant that some of you have met in classes) and I went there early in the afternoon on a Tuesday to avoid the weekend crowds. We hear it gets a little crazy on weekends.
Since H-mart is completely overwhelming in its size and variety, let me give you a run down by department. These are not the only departments they have, but that's all I could take in during one trip.
Variety is huge and they carry a ton of whole fish. The quality varies widely. I saw stuff that's as fresh as New Deal or Marden's; and stuff that's as terrible as Stop & Shop and Trader Joe's. They carry lots of previously frozen fish and some of those species freeze terribly (like flounder). The prices are appropriate. The lovely fresh whole snapper was $7/Lb (New Deal and Marden's would be around $9/Lb). But the fish that was dirt cheap was priced so for a reason. Swordfish pieces were from the tail end with an awfully dark brown bloodline -- the sign that they sat too long. Tuna was magenta pink -- sign that it was previously frozen. On another hand, they had treasures like fresh whole whiting that looked good. There was a cheaper previously frozen version of it too that looked beat up. As always, there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to fish. You get what you pay for.
I got a whole red snapper and asked them to scale it since it looked like the guts and gills were already out. The guy shook his head in confusion and pointed at the sign above. Turns out he didn't speak any English and needed me to tell him what I want using the following options:
"1 - clean"
"2 - clean, remove head"
"3 - clean and fillet"
I wasn't sure if "clean" meant scale. Is trimming fins part of it? I tried to make gestures for scaling and he kept pointing at the sign. Finally, I said "one." He got to work scaling and trimming fins and did a very respectable job -- way better than most Whole Foods. Janet asked for her striped bass to be filleted, but he refused. He said it can only be one or two. Not sure if it's because the fish was on the small side (about 1.5 Lb). New Deal has filleted fish of absolutely any size for me before. It is also handy that I can ask a good fish store like New Deal and Marden's to save the head and bones for me in a separate bag so that I could make stock. Not sure how I could communicate this at H-Mart.
They also carry some salted fish that is very yummy grilled or seared. That's probably what I'd get next time since it's not available at other fish mongers. Or better yet, I'll learn to salt it myself.
Yes, I know -- you all want to know about sushi. Bad news for you my friends -- I didn't try it. I had every intention to try it, but they were not very forthcoming with information to say the least. I am pregnant. This doesn't mean I don't eat raw fish -- I eat it at reputable sushi restaurants, and prepare it at home myself. But I don't eat it at sushi buffets, or from styrofoam boxes (that's how it was sold at H-Mart) when I can't get any information about it. Normally, I would risk it, but not now, so I decided to get some info before buying it. I asked the lady giving out samples of salted fish which "sushi" fish have been frozen and which ones not. She assured me that all their sushi fish is "fresh." A large chain like H-Mart is required by law to have a HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plan. In other words, all fish that are prone to parasites must be previously frozen to kill parasites. The fish they had on display for sushi were tuna, salmon, and fluke. She changed her story and said that maybe tuna and salmon were previously frozen because they have to be, but not fluke because it's "very local." That's complete ignorance. Tuna doesn't have to be previously frozen because it's not prone to parasites, but fluke definitely should be because it's very likely to have cod worm and anisakis.
I asked if there is someone responsible for sushi fish that I could talk to. She said it's impossible because he doesn't speak English, but he used to have his own sushi restaurant and knows what he is doing. To appease me, she found him and tried to translate for me. He wouldn't give me any answers, but wanted to know why I am asking all these questions. "What are you? An inspector?" he asked. I said I was a culinary instructor and simply need more information to be able to buy their fish for serving raw and to answer my students' questions. I asked if they'd be willing to tell me their supplier. I was guessing that their supplier already took care of freezing whatever was necessary for them. Most upscale sushi restaurants in Boston are supplied by True World Foods. They carry very reliable products. I have asked sushi restaurants about their suppliers before and most reputable ones were willing to share this information. H-Mark sushi guy got very upset. He said that I should either trust them or go elsewhere. Then he walked out on me.
I tried to get whatever information I could from a package. Tuna was priced at $13/Lb, so was salmon. While that's a reasonable price for decent quality salmon. It's way too cheap for decent quality tuna. The expiration date on some packages said "August 13, 2010" that was as of May 11, 2010. Obviously, that was a typo. But many packages said "May 16, 2010." Are they trying to tell me that I can serve this fish raw 5 days later? What I really wanted to know was when was the fish cut, defrosted, etc., but that info was not available.
Just for the record, New Deal and Marden's don't freeze their fish either. They are not selling them officially as "sushi" grade, but they are giving me lots of helpful information to make an informed decision about what I can and can't eat raw. Generally, Marden's guys are a bit clueless when it comes to parasites because they don't cater to sushi clientele. Carl at New Deal is much more knowledgeable. But these places tell you openly what they do and don't know. To deal with parasite risk, I buy fish for eating raw that are not prone to parasites (tuna, arctic char, hamachi, branzino). When I am not pregnant, I take my chances with fluke, but Carl inspects it in front of me. When stuff sits in a styrofoam package, I really don't know who inspected it and how well. I also don't have to worry about bacteria risk with New Deal and Marden's. They can tell me when the fish came in, when it was filleted, etc.
I am sure you can buy and eat their "sushi" fish raw without anything bad happening. But I like to know what I am buying, and I want fish that taste like great fish, not like supermarket sushi.
I haven't bought any meat here so can't speak for the quality, but variety is enormous if you are willing to buy stuff in bulk. They have skirt and hanger steaks, every part of the pig imaginable (from snouts to feet), frozen whole ducks and duck breasts (couldn't find legs), frozen pheasants, and all forms of offal. Nothing upscale (prime, dry-aged, etc), except for some marinated strips of Berkshire pork. Unfortunately, they didn't have it in any other form. The prices were not as good as Costco, but sometimes a little better than upscale butchers. Of course, at an upscale butcher, the skirt steak would already come trimmed and here you'll have to do the work yourself and buy 5Lb+.
The bakery had many tempting French Asian items. I was hoping they'd be of the caliber of Patisserie Japonaise in Brookline or the sadly closed Cafe Cakes. Unfortunately, they were nothing to write home about. The brioche studded with fruit and lightly glazed was of supermarket mass produced quality (you taste yeast, not butter).
Tons of variety and many Asian vegetables not available elsewhere. Many regular fruits and vegetables are sold in bulk at low prices. The quality varies a lot. Comparing this to Whole Foods seems silly (obviously H-Mart has more variety and better prices). Costco and Russo's would be more fair comparisons. The bulk items seemed very comparable to Costco in terms of quality and price. The Asian items seemed very comparable to Russo's. None of this stuff was comparable to California or farmer's markets in terms of freshness. I guess it's nice to be able to go to a Costco/Russo's hybrid and kill all birds with one stone.
The real gem here was the pantry. As you can imagine they have an insane variety of sauces, condiments, rice, etc. This stuff is not perishable and can easily travel anywhere. Unfortunately, I am the worst person to give you a report on the pantry since Asian cuisines are not my area of expertise. The pantry item I was trying to find was Vietnamese style fish sauce (most of the stuff available in regular supermarkets and smaller Asian stores is Thai style fish sauce). When I found the right isle, I was faced with 20-30 bottles of fish sauce and no one to ask for help. As always I was lost and couldn't figure out what to buy. I finally found a bottle that said made in Vietnam, but that's like buying a cheese that says "made in France." I really wished there was someone to provide guidance on the differences between these sauces. I guess what I really want is an Asian Formaggio's Kitchen. I realize the prices will be 3 times as much, but considering the fact that I buy fish sauce once every 2 years, I am fine with that. Basically, if you know the cuisine for which you are shopping and preferably some of that language you'd be fine.
In many ways, H-mart is like Costco. They carry from onions to electronics. It's the place to go if you know what you want (including specific brand). But it's not the place to go if you want to learn about a cuisine. Costco carries the brands and items that I need for the cooking that I do (King Arthur Flour, Buffalo Mozzarella, etc), and H-mart carries equivalent items for Asian cuisines that I don't know. As far as fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats go: I think H-mart is a wonderful place to buy these items compared to other stores in that part of Metro Boston area. None of those departments are the best of their kind in Boston, but they are all under one roof, so it could be a convenient one-stop-shopping place for North of Boston suburbs.