The Culinary Nerd Takes Her Friends Shopping

Here is the final installment of the tale of the Culinary Nerd and her friends gallivanting in the Baltimore/DC area.

First, I want to apologize for not contacting either the bloggers out in that area, or the folks whom I have not seen there in ages; I didn’t want to further complicate the visit, which already included six intrepid explorers, all in a rented minivan, all of whom had their own needs, wishes and places to go and people to see, by adding yet more people and visiting to the venture. The other reason I didn’t end up contacting anyone was because in the heat (it was over 98 degrees F. through most of our visit) and in my sixth month of pregnancy at the age of 40–I get tired ever so easily, and so I didn’t want to overtax myself with a lot of activity. Walking around the Smithsonian’s museums was about as much excitement as I could take, and even that got to be very, very wearing. So much so that I think I am out of the travelling game until after little Kat is born and is big enough to go off with Mamma and Daddy to see the world. (I hate to admit to weakness, you know. It pains me to do it, but it would pain me more to push myself beyond my physical capabilities. Besides, Zak and Morganna would become quite cross, and then all of my friends would help them tie me to the couch or something. And then, I wouldn’t get to cook anymore, and then, I would be really, really sad.)

So.

Do not think I wasn’t loving you if I didn’t contact you and make a date to meet you. It will happen, at a later date, preferably when it isn’t hotter than the hinges of hell, and I am not carrying around an extra wiggly internal burden whose name is Kat, but who most often these days gets called, “Thumper.”

For obvious reasons.

But wait! I am supposed to be talking about shopping.

Oooh. Shopping.

Every Culinary Nerd likes to shop. Its just that we have kind of more esoteric shopping needs than those that are usually satisfied by The Gap, Target, or Pier 1.

And there is a place in Ellicott City which this Culinary Nerd misses intensely: The Lotte Plaza Gourmet Asian Supermarket.

There you see it, at the beginning of this post–an Asian market that is the size of an American supermarket, which my friends quickly dubbed, “Korean Krogers.” And, really, it is an apt name.

Lotte is a chain of supermarkets originating in Korea, and I know that it has outlets all over the metro DC area, as well as in the upper part of the East Coast. I wish like crazy it would penetrate into America’s heartland, too, but I suspect I must wait a very long time for that to happen. But, when I am in the Columbia, Maryland/Baltimore/DC area, I have to stop by at this temple of Asian food goodness and remember all the tours I used to lead for Howard County Parks and Recreation at the place.

And while I am at it stock up on some of the most fresh Asian produce imaginable. And maybe buy a couple of gallons of kimchee. and gaze in wonder at the many varieties of very fresh fish and seafood in the seafood department. And pick up some neato-keen serving platters, plates and bowls in the housewares department.

I am sorry I didn’t take many photographs; I was trying to be inobtrusive on a crowded Saturday morning at the peak shopping time. I didn’t want to worry, upset or otherwise annoy the hordes of shoppers from every country in Asia, many countries in Latin America, and some scattered few Anglo-Americans. (Though, to be honest, most of those shoppers came in with me.) So, there are a mere handful of pictures here: not nearly enough to convey the amazing bounty on display in this huge and bustling shopper’s paradise.

Words are hard-pressed to convey the amount of extremely fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs that are available in the huge temple to vegetatation that they call the produce section. And the prices! Oh–so inexpensive. And they have -everything-. Fresh tamarind, durian (no, I didn’t buy one–I had friends in the minivan, and I would like them to remain friends), Asian pears, lemongrass that was among the freshest I have ever seen (and yes, I bought some of that), lotus root, water chestnuts, and sigh–two kinds of bitter melon (no–I didn’t buy those either, as they cause uterine contractions).

As for kimchee, there is an entire refrigerated AISLE of it, which I could not photograph, because it was jammed with shoppers alll picking their own favorites in jars from a mere 12 ounces to two gallons. It was beautiful.

The canned goods stretch for several aisles: the sauces and condiments for three. Noodles take up two aisles, and then there is the meat section, which is filled with mysteries such as gallons of cow and pig blood, pig uterous and chicken feet. (I didn’t buy the feet, because I get those free from a local farmer here in Athens.)

The whole experience can quickly become overwhelming, especially at busy times. There is the gigantic fish and seafood aisle where squid, beltfish, (they look like mini-oarfish–thirty-foot long giants of the deep), monkfish and shrimp with their heads on all rest on beds of ice. (The Maryland blue crabs, which I would have bought normally, in order to bring them home and make green curry with were not on ice, and were mostly dead, not lively and cantakerous. They smelled bad–a bad sign, and I noticed that not one shopper stopped to pick any out.)

The overwhelming nature of the Korean Krogers is part of why I started teaching one of my most popular culinary arts classes for Howard County Parks and Recreation when we lived there. I taught a series of Asian cooking classes–Thai, Chinese and Indian–but I also taught a tour of Lotte Plaza. The class size was limited to twenty people, I taught it every season, and every time, it was filled with students and had a waiting list of at least fifteen to twenty more people hoping the other students would cancel.

The manager of the store loved us, and would set up tasting stations, and have guys in the produce section bring out new and unusual produce items for us to examine, and would set up the fish department folks to be doing something interesting like cleaning squid, so they could demonstrate to my students. (I also got to step up and clean some squid myself–which was fun, and the fish guys were really happy that I even knew what I was doing!) One time, myself and my students were featured in a local television ad they were filming that same night.

Most of the students were cool, but every now and then, I would have a problematic person, and would have to diplomatically reign in behavior which I found to be offensive. Some people would make judgemental comments about the pig’s uteri in the meat department, and there was the night that the refrigerated case filled with gallon jugs of blood became an issue. I had to explain quite firmly those times that it was not our place to judge what others choose to eat and not eat, because it was part of their culture which is not better or worse than our own–simply different. I also pointed out that Europeans ate blood-based foods as well, such as the German blood sausage or the English black pudding.

Most of the time, however, it was fun, but not nearly as much fun as it was introducing my friends to the store. We had a great time looking, shopping, and people-watching. Tom, the anthropologist, had a stellar time observing the shoppers and what went into their carts, Heather was amazed at the produce prices and Zak and Dan were just fascinated by the spectacle of it all. And for Morganna–it was a return to a place of her childhood, as she visited this place often with me when she was younger and came to see us in Maryland.

She also liked shopping at the little Sanrio store that shares a space with the grocery plaza, and of course, we -all- were fascinated by the little refrigeration unit that was specifically designed to ferment and store varieties of kimchee over in the appliance section.

After such a lot of walking, we were a might bit peckish, so we paid for our purchases, and walked across the parking lot to La Boulangerie, which despite its French name, is a Korean bakery. Again, it was crowded, so I took no pictures of the inside, but let me say–the buns, breads, rolls, cookies, doughnuts and cakes inside are all beautifully made and are a perfect balance between Eastern ingredients and Western traditions. Red bean paste filled doughnuts sprinkled with cinnamon sugar were sold next to sweet potato filled breads. Sweet Portuguese style bread rolls filled with luscious but not too sweet buttercream tempted while crispy-tender almond cookies beckoned from a basket beside the register.

It was all good.

The visit to the Lotte Plaza and La Boulangerie was a feast for the senses, and a trip well worth taking, and in the future, worth repeating. If you live anywhere near Ellicott City and you like to cook and eat Asian foods, it is worth your while to take an afternoon to go down and check out all the goodness available to you there. It really is an amazing sight to see so many unusual vegetables, fruits and herbs all stacked together in perfect rows and pyramids, little of it available anywhere else, and all at great prices.

14 Comments

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  1. Here it is Ranch 99 – a Chinese chain (I think), or Sun Hop Fat, not a chain but a local mini-chain that can give Safeway a run for its money. It burned down recently, so now I go to Ranch 99 and the Asian mini-mall with the tea emporium and the Chinese bakery…..mmmmmmmm…..Lotus buns…..mmmmmm….

    It’s always the highlight of my weekend to decide I have to make one of my periodic shopping runs there. For produce I sometimes prefer some other smaller stores, as it can be fresher, but there’s nothing like the overwhelming MORE of a big Asian chain store. Whooo-hooo.

    Comment by Diane — July 24, 2006 #

  2. I remember that place! I used to shop there when I lived in Maryland a few years back.

    But the best for gigantic Asian supermarkets is in the Los Angeles area…

    In the suburb my parents live in there are no less than 3 gigantic American-supermarket sized Korean markets. There’s a few 99 Ranches, too. And yes, the produce and the meats, and the deli section of Korean side-dishes are all so wonderful.

    Anyhow, thank you very much for reminding me of my own visits to Lotte Market. I wasn’t sure, however, if the Lotte of that market’s name was the same company as the Lotte of South Korea.

    Comment by tetherball — July 25, 2006 #

  3. Han Ah Rheum, also in Ellicott City is, I think, better, for the produce and the bakery, but it’s been a while since I’ve been to the Lotte in Ellicott city.

    And Han Ah Rheum has a food court a couple doors down in the same strip mall, which is strictly low brow, but very good, especially the various marinated grilled fishies.

    Comment by Malcolm — July 25, 2006 #

  4. I wish I had one of these in my area. What I wouldn’t give for even just a little corner store selling fresh ginger and glass noodles! Glad you enjoyed yourself, and good luck with cooking up all of your finds!

    Comment by risingsunofnihon — July 25, 2006 #

  5. There’s a Han Ah Rheum down the street from my office (yum) and I know where the Lotte Market is- haven’t been in though, so thanks for sharing that!

    Glad you enjoyed the heat, but what did you think of the humidity? ;-)

    Comment by Liz — July 25, 2006 #

  6. Bummer! I would have loved to have met you… Sadly, it is quite possible that we were in the store at the same time. Saturday mornings is my regular time to shop there, and I was there the past 3 Saturdays. Oh well…

    That French/Korean Bakery! My husband and I really like their stuff. When I lived in Europe as a child, I never knew there were these sickly sweet confections that American tastes prefer. When this place opened, it was like a gift! I prefer the subtly sweet cakes and other delights found here over many other pastries.

    Next time, DO tell us you are coming!

    Comment by M Smith — July 25, 2006 #

  7. I had to smile at this post, because I’ve given informal “tours” of my local Asian market to visiting friends. This place sounds fabulous!

    Comment by Winslow — July 25, 2006 #

  8. As you know, I just moved to this area and I am a big big fan of this store. Now that I’ve got my new oven/range installed, I’m eager to return.

    The name confused me, because in Chicago there is are at least two businesses with the Lotte name, and they’re both Polish!

    Comment by barrett — July 25, 2006 #

  9. I often forget how fortunate I am to live in a city with such rich cultural neighborhoods and markets. My husband being chinese, I don’t even think twice when he puts huge amounts of ginger and garlic into our cart at the local chinese “mega”mart, knowing that I will be making it into something reminiscient of his formative years. Your children will be lucky to learn all of these great cultural traditions.

    Comment by Cat — July 25, 2006 #

  10. Diane–we were going to visit both northern and southern California this summer, but then I got pregnant and that trip was left by the wayside. It will have to wait a couple of years, I guess, and -then- I can see a Ranch 99! I have heard about it from lots of folks….

    tetherball–it is, as far as I can tell, the same chain.

    Malcolm–I have never been to Han An Rheum–I will have to visit it next time I am in the area.

    Risingsun–Another batch of green curry will be forthcoming—have no fear!

    Liz–the humidity. UGGGHHH! It was godawful. Of course, I lived there for three years, so I knew that the timing of the trip was not going to be comfortable, but one forgets the weather of that area if one is away for a while. Ick.

    M–I agree! The not too sweet Korean/French pastries are to die for! They are lovely, especially in the morning. Now that I am pregnant, I don’t have much tolerance for super-sweet foods, so their buns are just perfect for a nibble in the morning.

    And yeah, we were there at the same time. If you saw a lady with a long grey abaya on, little glasses and a dark blue hijab, with a tall red-haired man with glasses, that was our friends. I was in a very long, very full dark blue crinkle gauze shirt with a dip-dyed graduated dark to light blue kurta shirt with silvery embroidery around the neckline.

    The rest of the group was much more non-descript, but if you caught sight of a sharp-eyed man scribbling in a notebook furiously–that was another of us, and the hyperactively bouncing teen with spiky hair was my daughter. Zak, well, he has long curly hair, little round blue glasses and a beard, and he was in charge of our communal cart….

    And next time we travel, I will post an announcement on the blog so folks can get together and we can meet up. That would be utterly cool. I don’t think I will have quite as large an entourage as we had this time around. (Though, you never know…we had an awful lot of fun with our peeps!)

    Winslow–I got the idea for teaching the tour class because I gave informal ones to friends, and then lost-looking Anglo customers would start following us around. It was a great idea and the tours were extremely popular. If we had a huge grocery store here like that, I would definately do the tours again.

    Barette–what stove did you end up with?

    Do go and visit them for the big shopping trips, though if you are just out of soy sauce or coconut milk or noodles, there is a place on Snowden River Parkeway called Sing Fy that is great for a quick stop. The foodstuffs are primarily Chinese, but the folks there are friendly and they do sell live tilapia, and their produce, on Saturday mornings is quite fresh. They are in the same strip mall as the fabled Akbar Restaurant, where we had to eat twice in this trip is. (If you haven’t tried their buffet yet on Saturday afternoon, you should. Great stuff–lots of it vegetarian.)

    Thank you, Cat. Morganna has already started to learn to cook Indian, Chinese and Thai, and if Kat’s internal bounciness after my meals at Akbar are any indication, she already has a taste in utero for good Indian food!

    Comment by Barbara — July 25, 2006 #

  11. There is a Asian Grocery Superstore that has been coming together for about six weeks now at 161 and Sawmill here in Columbus. I can only hope that this store actually makes an appearance and that they have items like the Lotte Plaza store. Time to go make some sacrifices to the kitchen gods…

    Comment by Rosie — July 26, 2006 #

  12. Darn and shucks, but I understand about having a full caravan (exterior _and_ interior!) and a full itinerary! For those of you blog-watchers who are singing the praises of Han Ah Rheum, that’s right around the corner from my place, and as soon as I’m done with this wretched moving business, I have got to get out there and see it. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about that place and *still* haven’t been. Yikes.

    Comment by Kate — July 26, 2006 #

  13. Rosie–I saw that place–I want to see what it is like, too. There used to be a VERY small Lotte in Columbus, but it shut down. CAM (Columbus Asian Market) on Bethel is good, but nowhere nearly as large as most Lotte markets on the east coast.

    Kate–let me know what you think of Han An Rheum–maybe we will stop by the next time we are in town. We could always meet you there for shopping and schmoozing!

    Comment by Barbara — July 26, 2006 #

  14. Hi! I live in the Baltimore/Washington area, and I just visited Lotte in Ellicott City for the first time this past weekend. Reading your blog post let me know what to expect — thanks for writing it! FYI, the Sing Fy on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia is going out of business, which is the reason I was exploring other Asian markets in the area.

    Comment by katie — November 29, 2006 #

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