Hana Asian Market is located in the middle of a little strip mall a couple of blocks from where Highway 77 (Cedar Avenue) meets Old Shakopee Road in Bloomington. During the last 15 years it’s had three owners and two names, but it still carries (mostly) the same Korean and Japanese foodstuffs as it always did.
It was the middle of the week and the middle of the afternoon when I visited, and the small store was already filled with customers. Owner Min Yong Cho rang up the line of mostly Korean and Japanese patrons, chatting with each of them.
One regular customer, Alli Zarling, is not Asian but is a devotee of Japanese anime and, she claims, all things Japanese and Korean. She brought with her a group of like-minded friends to what she said is her favorite store. “I love it here,” she says. “They have everything I want and they’re very helpful. I find recipes and then come here and stock up.”
The owner’s right-hand woman, Yong Choe, offered to carry Zarling’s heavy shopping basket past the cans of silkworm pupa (for snacks) and Spam to the potato starch she sought.
The effervescent Choe was once a customer, but was recently hired as Cho’s assistant. She’s always smiling. “I’ve been here six months,” she said. “I wanted to work here because this is such a great place. We have the best customers.”
Choe’s home is in Wisconsin, but four days a week she rooms with her boss (and friend), returning across the border on weekends. Both women are from Seoul, South Korea. Owner Cho has been in Minnesota only five years. Her friend Choe came to Wisconsin 23 years ago and helps translate for her boss when non-Koreans have questions.
The biggest sellers at the store, said Cho (through Choe), are the jars of kimchi, a kind of Korean style sauerkraut in two-cup to one-gallon sizes. These come in several varieties—from the bright red and very spicy scallion, white radish, or Napa cabbage types to the mild vinegary white version. The store also carries a limited supply of very fresh vegetables and the rest of the ingredients you’ll need to make your own kimchi.
Looking for a food adventure? Try the strangely named Vermont Curry, a Japanese product that got its name from the 1958 book Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health, a huge hit in Japan. The book advocated a mix of apple cider vinegar and honey as a health panacea. The sweet sauce has no vinegar in it, just apples. Today, it’s considered kid food.
There are a variety of rices for sale, mostly short and medium grain, used in making sticky rice, sushi, or kim bap. Ready to eat kim bap, Korean style sushi—roasted seaweed and sticky rice wrapped around shredded carrots, greens, and pickled radish then flavored with sesame oil—are for sale by the cash register, an impulse item. They rock.
The freezer section includes frozen Asian style dumplings stuffed with meat and vegetables, alone or in combination, ready to slip into broth or dip into soy sauce after just a couple of minutes of boiling. There are bags of silvery dried anchovies, from the very tiny to two-inch-long fish, used in soups, appetizers and the many side dishes that are served with traditional Korean meals. Anchovies also make their way into some kimchi recipes.
You can find packages of specially cut frozen beef to make bulgogi or Korea’s famous bar-b-que ribs, as well as other roasted, grilled, stewed, and pan-fried Korean classics. “We get frozen meat in, fresh, every week,” said Cho. The store is spotless and many of the packages are at least partially in English, which is good because sometimes communication can be challenging here if you don’t speak Korean.
Even if you don’t understand everything, the atmosphere is friendly and enthusiastic. “I love this place,” says Choe. “I really love this place.”
The next time I visit, I’m going to say annyeonghaseyo (Hello!) when I arrive and gamsahamnida (Thank you) when I leave. I’m hope they understand me when I try.