How to Navigate the Hudson Valley's Asian Grocery Markets
Yuoko Yamamoto of Kingston's Gomen Ramen teaches us how to find the best duck and dumplings in town.
Nira chives and shiitake mushrooms number among the ingredients in Yamamoto's recipe for gyoza, a type of Chinese dumpling.
Photo by Yuoko Yamamoto
Over two chilly weekends in December, we joined Youko Yamamoto, owner of former New Paltz hot spot Gomen Kudasai and Kingston’s forthcoming Gomen Ramen, to grocery shop at two of the Valley’s largest Asian markets.
We began at Asian Supermarket, one of a few large Asian grocers in the Capital Region. Yamamoto and her husband, (the sculptor, Kazuma Yamamoto), hurried in from the rain in their long overcoats and hats, past the crisp, sweating Peking ducks in the front window, toward the produce area. After a quick scan, they fell into ingrained patterns of navigation and communication as they dispersed among the various sections. Pantry aisles are stocked with enchanting mixtures of dried mushrooms; floral teas arranged side by side, their pastel bulbs like strokes of an Impressionist painting; and noodles — so many noodles. Meat cases display a meticulous anatomy of nose-to-tail cuts from familiar and unfamiliar animals, like the deep black, almost purple-skinned “Silkie” chickens, and the seafood section is alive with sage-colored buckets of gurgling toads, tanks of swimming eels, and the usual assortment of clear-eyed whole fish on ice.
Yuoko and Kazuma Yamamoto / Photo by Chiaki Hara
The Yamamotos always meet back in the produce section to inspect their findings — on the first occasion, a bag of frozen gyoza dumplings, which they review for MSG content (natural and organic ingredients are a priority for the couple) — before venturing out again. According to Yamamoto, the produce section is the draw. Welcome Oriental Grocer in Poughkeepsie is closer and great in a pinch, but the produce variety can’t touch the larger markets. Purple sweet potatoes, Chinese chives, curly green beans, massive daikon radishes, bamboo shoots, and burdock, lotus, and taro roots are all plentiful here.
If you can handle the bustle, H-Mart, at the southern end of the Valley — Hartsdale in Westchester County — offers even more. That is where Yamamoto takes us next. Beginning in the produce section, Yamamoto demonstrates the correct consistency of a persimmon (about as firm as an avocado a day or two before peak ripeness), and then leads us to a table where they can be sampled along with Asian pear.
Afterward, the prepared food section: marinated cuts of rib-eye and pork belly for Korean BBQ and coolers full of dozens of kimchee varieties, pickled peppers, cured mackerel, soy-marinated sesame leaves, stewed tofu, and more are laid out for quick turnover.
Kim's Convenience photo by @Sunhees95ferry
In the meat coolers, carefully layered cuts of perfectly marbled wagyu and rib-eye beef, sliced duck breast, and more lead all the way down the back of the store to the seafood section. Here, heaps of shiny whole mackerel and sardines lay next to piles of head-on shrimp. Yamamoto starts toward the sardines until being distracted by the mackerel, which she quickly inspects and orders four or five. Her rule of thumb seems to be: buy what is exciting, healthy, and natural, and then figure out what to do with it. This results in an overflowing shopping cart at H-Mart.
When she has had enough, we saddle up at the food court before the ride home. It is split into Japanese, Chinese, and Korean restaurants, each serving about 30 regional home-cooking dishes cafeteria-style. A rolling boil of Yukaejang, a Korean beef and noodle soup, hits the spot this time.
Yamamoto explains that large markets are hard to find in the Mid-Hudson Valley, so she usually has to drive an hour north or south to do her shopping. DA Tang Market in Middletown represents a notable exception.
H-Mart seafood / Photo by Maria Colaco
According to the latest available census data, the largest Asian populations in the region are in Albany and Westchester counties, both at 7 percent. That is enough to support large markets and smaller specialty markets, like Kim’s Convenience in Troy: an Asian-based bodega, Kim’s shares the mission of its parent company Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, also in Troy, to make Asian food more accessible and to empower immigrants and refugees. Frontier, just down the road from H-Mart in Hartsdale, offers quick options for Japanese ingredients.
And we can attest, the vastness of variety in both directions makes — at least — a monthly trip to these flavor purveyors well worth the time and gas.