How H Mart Transformed Shopping For Asian-Americans

For many Asian-Americans, just one glimpse of that tell-tale red and white H logo is enough to make us simultaneously nostalgic, hungry, and excited. The American supermarket chain of Asian supermarkets with a Korean focus started as a humble grocery store in Queens, back in 1982. Now the family-run business is managed on a much larger scale, operating ninety-seven stores across the United States, according to its website. The H stands for the Korean phrase "han ah reum", which translates roughly to one arm full of groceries, though eager customers usually leave with a cart full.

Having grown up in a household of Taiwanese immigrants, I remember schlepping to dingy Chinese grocery stores for pantry basics like sesame oil, soy sauce, doubanjiang, rice cakes, and bok choy. But, when an H Mart appeared on the horizon in 2010, with the opening of their Edison, New Jersey location, it was a definite game changer.

The transformative power of H Mart

Off of route 27, the Edison H Mart opened up its doors to 56,000 square feet of grocery heaven, full of long-lost conveniences, new gadgets, snacks, and more, explains Central Jersey, and was also called the epicenter of diversity by then-Senator Barbara Buono. But H Mart was transformative for Asian grocery shopping because from the beginning the founders (II Yeon Kwon and Elizabeth Kwon) wanted to "defy the stereotype of Asian groceries as grimy and run-down," reported the New York Times.

H Marts are spacious and well-lit, and the produce aisles are fresh and plentiful. For those who grew up with Asian parents, shopping at a H Mart in America is like entering a liminal space where the world around you, for once, is centered around the Asian American identity, rather than existing as a side note in an ethnic aisle. A shopping experience where one can easily find any specific amount of kimchi, live seafood, tofu in all its shapes and forms, and candies and snacks imported from Asia also acts as a bridge to many Asians' childhood nostalgia or past lives, pre-immigration.

The H Mart Community

Many H Marts are also anchors for the Asian American community; the brand is active on the Chinese social media app WeChat, has retail spaces and a food court to hang out in, hosts art contests, and the chain also proudly supports local non-profits, scholarship funds, and youth development programs (full list on the H Mart website.) The H Mart growth hasn't slowed down either; more branches are on the rise and this handy timeline of its expansion seems to run in parallel with the growth of Asian Americans in the United States as the fastest growing racial group, increasing by a whopping 35.5% in the past decade, according to NBC News.

If you are now inspired to go to an H Mart, but don't know where to start? Check out Youtuber, CupofTJ's handy 2022 guide to the top foods to buy at your new favorite Asian supermarket.