How Musician Michelle Zauner Uses Korean Food to Honor Her Mother’s Memory
The author of 'Crying in H Mart' talks about grief, the joys of grocery shopping, and cooking as a form of meditation.
Michelle Zauner, the musician also known as Japanese Breakfast, has proven to be a master of storytelling in many forms. In her new memoir, Crying in H Mart, she explores the ways in which food can shape identity, serve as a love language, and help to process grief. And she’s earned her way to spot number two on the New York Times' bestseller list.
Zauner chronicles her upbringing in Eugene, Oregon, where she experiences the complexities of her Korean-American identity and finds comfort in the world of indie rock. But at the heart of this memoir is Zauner’s loving, though sometimes complicated, relationship with her mother, Chongmi. And food is the vessel by which the story moves.
On a childhood trip to Korea, Zauner and her mother share a moment of late-night banchan, giggling and shushing each other between bites of custardy raw crab. When Chongmi is diagnosed with cancer, Zauner leads a painstaking effort to track her mother’s calorie intake, saved by the grace of a nourishing pine nut porridge. And instead of healing through traditional therapy after her mother passes away, Zauner goes to H Mart, conjuring happy memories of her through a ritual of kimchi-making.
In this mother-daughter story, Zauner writes, “Food was how my mother expressed love. No matter how critical or cruel she could seem—constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.”
We spoke to Zauner about the joys of grocery shopping, cooking as a form of meditation, and which of her mother’s food traditions she still carries with her.
Thrillist: In this book, you talk about your love for the supermarket, which is a setting for grief, but also a setting for exploration. What makes grocery shopping exciting to you?
Michelle Zauner: I love to imagine the endless possibilities and combinations. I always give my husband a hard time, because I feel like that’s how he is in Home Depot, and I hate being in Home Depot. He hates to go to the grocery store with me now because I take so long, but it’s because my brain is operating in a different way. I can see a can of something and know that it goes with this, or it sparks a new idea. But for me, I think it became so important because it really unlocked memory for me in this way that was unexpected. I had been living with a sort of trauma, unable to remember my mom in a positive way for quite some time, and it was only when I started going to H Mart that I began to have these memories that were really joyful and nostalgic in a good way.
What was the process of sifting through an archive of memories like?
That’s one thing that’s really great about writing a food memoir, is that those things are very easy to relive. What’s harder is the actual memory that you can’t experience ever again. But, at least with food, you can always re-engage with those things and get ideas for language. I spent six weeks in Korea in December of 2017, and three weeks in May of 2019, so I was able to do quote-unquote research and eat a lot of really great food and sort of relive a lot of those moments and lean into those descriptions.
How has cooking Korean food become a form of therapy for you? Does the ritual allow you to clear your head and sort of meditate, or is it an emotional process, deeply tied to memories of your mother?
I think the latter. So much of the book is about the failures that I felt as a caretaker, and I think that it was a sort of psychological undoing that I ended up learning how to make these recipes after she passed away. I really struggled to figure out how to take care of my mom in this way, and how to nourish her, because I didn’t know a lot of the Korean dishes that you eat when you’re sick. And so I think there was a sort of natural, psychological kind of processing of that when I started to do it after she passed away. And I think another part of it was preserving our shared culture. After she died, it almost felt like, ‘Does this culture even belong to me?’ or ‘Does her family even belong to me anymore?’ And I had to kind of actively interact with it in this way that I never had, and I think cooking was, in part, a sort of ritual of doing that.
There’s this moment in the book where you ask your mom to walk you through a recipe over the phone, and you ask her how many cups of rice she uses, but she scoffs and says she doesn’t use cups. Do you think there’s a generational, or maybe cultural, difference in the way we approach preciseness in cooking?
I think it’s definitely a cultural thing. I feel like a lot of kids of immigrants have complained about this same kind of cryptic, lack of measurement. That was just something that was never used in my household, whereas I feel like I always remembered American recipes getting passed down, written out on paper, with actual measurements.
And do you feel that, as you get more and more comfortable cooking Korean food, it’s become more intuitive?
Yes, I think I have. But I am ashamed to admit that I do measure my rice [laughs].
There’s a section where you talk about how your parents never really exposed you to fine art, but they treated you to the finest of foods. Have you come to view the process of preparing Korean food as an art?
I wouldn’t say that I’m by any means an artist in the kitchen. If anything, that would put too much pressure on me. All of my hobbies have weirdly become part of my career in some way, and cooking is this nice, sort of separate thing where I don’t have to think about it very much. But I guess, similar to music, there is an intuitive nature to it, and you’re leaning into your senses to kind of navigate whether or not it’s working. That’s kind of what music making is in a way. You’re relying on your senses to tell you what’s good. And sometimes you don’t know exactly what it needs, and you have to kind of try things on in order to figure out what’s working and what’s not.
You mention that while you struggled to be a good kid, you could excel at being a courageous eater—a quality that’s really lauded by your Korean family. What else is distinct about the way Koreans approach food?
I just really love the way Korean people delight in the extremes. Any food that’s supposed to be hot is scalding, anything that’s cold is on ice, anything that’s fresh is still moving. Dishes are really vibrant, really spicy, really colorful, and I really love that about Korean food. I also love banchan, you know, everything is eaten communally. It’s a really fun, interactive way to eat. There are so many different combinations of how you can create a mouthful with what’s on the table.
When embarking on these food projects, you turned to Maangchi, the Korean YouTube sensation, in what you describe as a Korean Julie & Julia moment. What drew you to her, and how did she remind you of your mother
There were just small, little things, really. She’s probably the most famous Korean woman that makes Korean food for an American audience in this very accessible way—and in English. So it was just the easiest way for me to learn how to do it. I just became very comforted by her presence, and she became this very large part of my life. I remember watching the way she would do little things, like the way that she peels a pear or an apple, with the knife pulled towards her in one continuous strip, or the way that she pronounces zucchini like zu-gweenie—that reminded me a lot of my mom. You know, just like certain idiosyncrasies of that type of accent.
Do you have any favorite food writers, or any other sources of writing inspiration?
I really love M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing. I loved Consider the Oyster and The Gastronomical Me. A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain—I think everyone loves Anthony Bourdain. I read Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. I also really loved Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which I think really inspired me to take a look at the more menacing relationships that we can have with food. I like the idea of exploring food not only as a joy, but also as a horror, and that book definitely leans in that direction, which I found very interesting.
Was there a part of you that hoped your descriptions of Korean dishes would stir curiosity about the cuisine?
Obviously I wanted to make them enticing, because they’re all dishes that I really loved and I felt like other people would appreciate. I’m definitely looking forward to people becoming more curious about certain dishes because of the way that I wrote about them. I actually think that a lot of dishes that are in the book are not really well-known. They’re not more of the popular Korean dishes, especially jatjuk, the pine nut porridge, and the soybean noodle soup, which is called kongguksu. A lot of the dishes that I actually delve into are things that I think are not as popular in the U.S. I am kind of curious to see if that sparks some interest from people.
What is a tip or trick your mother taught you—related to cooking or otherwise—that you always carry with you?
My mom always said that the key to making good black bean noodles, good jajangmyeon, is to have lots of onions. And If you go to a Korean restaurant and get pajeon, order it ‘basak basak,’ which means crispy. So every time I go to a Korean restaurant and order a scallion or seafood pancake, I’ll always ask for it that way.