Super H Mart, the Korean megagrocery in Niles, opened last summer, and my head still spins in wonder at its endless bounty. To really appreciate it you need to set aside several hours, and perhaps perform some calming mental exercise to prepare for the crowds and confusion of this inconveniently laid out labyrinth of food. The variety of frozen dumplings alone is enough to inspire the same pangs of existential insignificance you can get from stargazing. Only a store with its massive traffic could maintain the fresh kimchi bar with deep tubs of pickled vegetables and fish parts, or the seafood section, with dozens of iced whole fresh fish–beltfish to red mouthbreeder–all cut and cleaned to order, tables of glistening squid and shrimp, and a basin full of live blue crabs for the kiddies to torture. The food court–well, it’s a food court, so the eats are rather average–but it makes up for it in variety and some novelty; there are handmade noodles and dumplings along with Chinese food Korean-style, sushi, a bakery, and a takeout window with soups, porridges, snacks, and marinated bulgogi and kalbi. There’s a new cookware department with a baffling selection of rice cookers, along with an outer ring of mall shops where you can buy pricey ginseng-based cosmetics, Hello Kitty pencils, and that heated stone bed you’ve been saving for. I love H Mart, but I fear for the city’s large Korean groceries, like Arirang and Chicago Food Corp. (though I appreciate the recent ease of dealing with latter’s perpetually gridlocked parking lot).
In spite of the overwhelmingly Korean-centric offerings, H Mart attracts a fairly multinational group of customers–lots of Indians and Eastern Europeans–in large part I think for its produce section, which is the most amazing part of the whole operation. Mountains of gorgeous fruit, greens, roots, and freakish vegetables–fresh turmeric, yellow chives, durian (frozen), dried persimmons, and on and on. Invariably I end up buying some sort of exotica I have no clue what to do with. On Sunday they had sawdust-packed boxes of nagaimo, aka mountain yam, a long hairy tuber that reduces to a snotlike consistency when cooked. I was sure I’d never consume that again after doing a shot of it two years ago at the late Matsumoto. I almost grabbed one until I saw a mound of these weird, horny black things that look like something Lemmy Kilmister would have tattooed on his tongue. A crowd of older folks was inspecting them, though no one knew what they were. Two stockboys shrugged when asked, and the produce manager was nowhere to be found, probably buried under an avalanche of mushrooms on the loading dock. I grabbed a bagful, trusting my old friend The Oxford Companion to Food would show me the way.
Water caltrops, as they’re known, are sometimes called water chestnuts, and though they’re not the same thing, the starchy soft nut under their hard, satanic exterior is pretty familiar. They’re traditionally eaten during the Autumn Moon Festival, and can be candied, pickled, or ground into flour. They’re toxic before cooking, but difficult to open raw anyway. Cursory Googling only revealed one recipe, in which they’re used as a decoration for a steamed pear cake, straight out of MacArthur Park, that also incorporates lard, spinach juice, peanut butter, shrimp roe, and “twiglets.” I boiled one yesterday and pried it open. It was soft like a terrestrial chestnut, rather than a crunchy water chestnut, though it wasn’t nearly as sweet, and had an offputting, bitter odor. Unless I find a more appetizing way of eating these I think I’ll mount them over my front door to scare off Jehovah’s Witnesses.