Realm of Possibility

Realm of Possibility

In 1985, Yoon-Ock Kim opened Oriental Pantry, New Haven’s oldest Asian market, and has been offering up house-made Korean food and specialty groceries ever since. Located in East Rock, the petite, easily overlooked shop is loaded with items sourced from Japan, China, Thailand, India, and Korea, many labeled with small hand-written signs offering upbeat information and cooking tips, as well as a small selection of locally made delicacies. A simple four-step recipe for Korean rice cake soup sits in front of packages of the main ingredient. “Sprinkle over… cooked rice” instructs another near varieties of furikake, a Japanese condiment with ingredients like dried seaweed, toasted sesame seeds, dried fish or eggs and herbs.

The stuffed shelves, refrigerators, and freezers reward browsing. A small sampling includes a wide variety of basics such as rice, noodles and tea as well as instant miso soups, mango pulp, pickled scallions, paneer, mochi, kimchi, sambal oelek (Indonesian chili sauce), canned mackerel, marinated beef, and homemade dumplings. Delivered every two weeks, the dumplings ($34.99) come in bags of about 50 with fillings of pork, beef, shrimp, vegetable or kale and spinach.

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The groceries enticed, but my daughter and I had come for lunch. Printed on whiteboards over the counter, the small menu offered descriptions of Korean dishes. We ordered takeout, although four tables and chairs were arranged by the large front windows, where two men happily chatted and ate. As our food cooked, one couple from “eastern Connecticut” slowly filled a box with groceries. Despite having Asian markets closer to home, they said they prefer Oriental Pantry for its wider selection and welcoming vibe.

Back at home with our food, we began with the most popular dish, bibimbap ($9.95), an eye-catching assortment of vegetables (zucchini, bean sprouts, carrots, lettuce, two kinds of mushrooms) surrounding a pile of rice (your choice of white or brown) crowned with a sunny-side-up egg. We opted for an addition of tofu instead of the traditional beef (+$1). The savory, lightly spicy house-made sauce amped up and pulled together all the flavors into a distinctively satisfying lunch.

But we had more to try. Next up was unagi bap ($10.95)—grilled eel over rice, topped with a shiny brown sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Served with tangy pickled carrots and radish as well as seaweed salad, the eel was slightly crusty outside but tender inside and absolutely delicious. Curious about the unagi sauce, I found an online recipe that called for simmering mirin, sake, sugar and soy sauce until thickened.

Saving some of the unagi bap for later, we moved on to our final selection, japchae ($5.95)—glass noodles mixed with egg, broccoli, carrots, red pepper, onion and wood ear mushrooms. The combo of spicy, silky noodles, crisp vegetables and sweet eggs led my daughter to declare them “the perfect slippery noodle dish.”

Content and full, we discussed what we wanted to order in the future—kimbap ($5.95), which looked like the Korean version of sushi, and duk mandu guk ($9.95), featuring rice cakes, veggies and dumplings in chicken broth.

Like its modest-looking menu does with complex, delectable flavors, the unassuming storefront of Oriental Pantry belies the variety of culinary possibilities within.

Written and photographed by Heather Jessen.

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