H Mart, the popular Korean grocery store chain, is more than the setting for Crying in H Mart’s illustrative first chapter (and a 2018 essay of the same name) — it’s the catalyst for the entire arc of Michelle Zauner’s new memoir. “Essentially, the whole book is figuring out why I cry in this grocery chain,” Zauner says. In digging for those answers, Zauner, the talent behind indie pop act Japanese Breakfast, wrote a moving memoir about her Korean-born mother, Chongmi, their at-times contentious relationship, and her terminal cancer diagnosis and death in 2014.
Crying in H Mart is a book about family and grief, but as its title implies, it’s also a book about food. Food is the medium through which Zauner forges connections to her mother, her family, and more broadly, her own Koreanness. Zauner writes early on in the book that their “shared appreciation of Korean food served not only as a form of mother-daughter bonding but also offered a pure and abiding source of her approval.” And later, food is a way forward through grief, when following her mother’s death, Zauner turns to Korean YouTube personality Maangchi to learn to cook doenjang jjigae and jatjuk, and ultimately maintain a link to Korean culture in her mother’s absence.
Zauner spoke to Eater about Crying in H Mart, and the many roles food has played in her life during that period and now. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Eater: Did you always know when you were setting out to document this part of your life that food would show up so heavily in it?
Michelle Zauner: That was the sort of genesis of it. I knew it was going to be this thematic vehicle. I started in 2016 writing largely about Maangchi and largely her chapter was developed from this essay I submitted to Glamour magazine that actually won their essay contest in 2016. It started as a very simple story. I thought it was cute that I had this Korean Julie & Julia moment with this YouTube vlogger. I thought it was interesting that this woman played such an essential role in my life and I’d never met her. I had such a wonderful experience writing nonfiction for the first time that I decided maybe this could be a memoir. I always set out to write it with food as the main theme. That’s how that developed.
How has your relationship with Maangchi changed since then? Have you discussed her impact on your life?
I went to a Q&A. It was her and Hooni Kim, who runs Hanjan and Danji in New York, two Korean restaurants. And Maangchi, like one could expect, is one of the most effervescent magnetic people I’ve ever met. I had already written this essay and brought it to her and I put my contact information on the top of it, only because I’d been submitting it to a lot of places at the time and it hadn’t been picked up yet. So I just quietly got my cookbook signed and I gave it to her, and when it was published in Glamour she actually called me from an unknown number; I had no idea how she even got my number. She was like, “Oh Michelle, I feel like your mom, I’m so proud of you!”
She was really warm and generous with me and I think it’s because she has a lot of people like me who have become weirdly obsessed with her and imbue her with a tremendous amount of meaning. It’s a very intense role to fill and she’s done a great job of being generous with herself and open to taking on that role for a lot of people.
As you were writing the book, were you cooking a lot?
Definitely. One thing that’s nice about writing a book about food is — unless it’s from a specific place — you can revisit things easily by preparing the dish. The sensory detail that comes from interacting with that is something that can be recreated pretty easily.
You write that making kimchi in particular became a form of therapy after your mother died. Can you talk about what you meant by that and how you experienced that?
I never made kimchi before. I talk about my first time making it in the book, and I’m not a big baker, but I imagine it’s like a similar kind of feeling for a lot of people who are bakers where it’s just something that takes time. There’s so much space to be reflective and meditative. It’s a very tactile experience and it feels rooted in something ancient and historical. I don’t think a lot of Korean people even make kimchi. My mom certainly didn’t, so it’s a very extra thing to do in the same way that I guess baking bread can be an even longer process that you’re unsure about for a long time. There’s something spiritual about it, like you’re letting the environment take hold of this thing.
It’s like growing your own produce. You can just pop in and buy a bag of baby carrots at the grocery store versus actually planting something from seeds and watching it grow — it tastes different and feels like an intense moment to get to interact with something like that. It’s a similar feeling with kimchi. You can buy it and it tastes great usually, but it feels different when you know you’ve been waiting for weeks to try this thing for the first time. Something I wrote in the book is, I usually have a couple of pieces of kimchi left on my plate. [When I buy kimchi] I don’t open the thing and put the kimchi back in, but if you make your own, you’re like, the least I can do is respect the food I made and do that.
Does making kimchi still have that kind of meditative quality for you?
I still make it occasionally. I have a really hard time slowing down in life in general; it’s one of those things that takes its time and it’s very active. It’s like doing laundry by hand, because there’s a lot of washing.
One of the themes I was struck by as I was reading is the way food can also be so fraught, especially in the chapter in which you’re struggling to find food that will nourish your mother.
That was something I didn’t even realize until I started writing it. For me, the book started with the line, “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,” and essentially the whole book is figuring out why I cry in this grocery chain. There are a number of answers. It’s obviously a very simple thing: food connects you to your roots. But in the process of writing it, I also realized there’s so much shame psychologically tied up in my failure to provide for my mother in this way.
I’m glad people have picked up on that because I think it’s a food memoir, and a large part of that is a celebration of food. But you also need to know what’s at stake and why I turned to food as a celebration and when food can get really ugly. Food is very much a vehicle for this book in many different ways. It is a celebration but there are so many ugly parts of my relationship to food in the second act of the book: calorie counting and chemotherapy side effects that kept my mother from eating, and also I lost a lot of weight and my relationship to food became very ugly. I needed to explore that in order for people to understand why this could have been something I turned to and what I was reclaiming in a way — what I had lost and then reclaimed.
What have you been cooking lately? What roles have food and cooking played in your life over the last year and a half?
I’m such an open book and I’ve been hesitant to even talk about this. In the beginning it was like the only thing that could spark joy. Cooking was all we had to really interact with joy. In the beginning I was into trying different types of cuisine. I got into Mediterranean dips for a while and went in on the baba ghanoush. My new Maangchi was this guy [guitarist Sahil Makhija] who has a YouTube channel called Headbanger’s Kitchen. He’s really into metal and he makes keto Indian recipes. I also started doing a bunch of weird fad diets for a time and there was this weird sense of control I was getting. There was a couple weeks when I was like, I’m going vegan and gluten free. Then I was trying all these weird diets because I think there was this element of control over my surroundings that that gave me.
I did try to make a couple of Korean things that definitely failed. I tried to make ganjang-gejang which is this fermented crab that didn’t go very well. I had some bread failures like everyone else in the world.
What do you hope readers take away from Crying in H Mart?
Ultimately it is a food memoir, but at its core it’s a mother-and-daughter story, and I really wanted to capture my mother’s character. She was a very unique person, and it’s very much about how mothers and daughters can drift apart from one another in their teenage years and ultimately come back together. I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to. I hope kids, especially of immigrant parents, can feel less alone by seeing this story. It’s pretty common that there can be these major points of contention between American-raised kids and their immigrant parents, because I was definitely very confused by that growing up and it became clearer to me in modern times, and with age.
Crying in H Mart is out now.