In her New York Times bestselling memoir, "Crying in H Mart" (Knopf), Michelle Zauner, the lead singer of the indie band Japanese Breakfast, writes of losing her mother to cancer – and of the comfort she found in the aisles of a Korean-owned grocery store chain.
Listen to an audio clip from "Crying in H Mart" (and read along with the excerpt below), and don't miss correspondent Hua Hsu's interview with Michelle Zauner onJanuary 30!
Also, check out Zauner's recipe below for a family favorite: Kimchi Jjigae.
Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.
H Mart is a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. The H stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to "one arm full of groceries." H Mart is where parachute kids flock to find the brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home. It's where Korean families buy rice cakes to make tteokguk, the beef and rice cake soup that brings in the New Year. It's the only place where you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it's the only place that truly understands how much garlic you'll need for the kind of food your people eat. H Mart is freedom from the single-aisle "ethnic" section in regular grocery stores. They don't prop Goya beans next to bottles of sriracha here. Instead, you'll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom's soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, Am I even Korean anymore if there's no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?
Growing up in America with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, I relied on my mom for access to our Korean heritage. While she never actually taught me how to cook (Korean people tend to disavow measurements and supply only cryptic instructions along the lines of "add sesame oil until it tastes like Mom's"), she did raise me with a distinctly Korean appetite. This meant a reverence for good food and a predisposition to emotional eating. We were particular about everything: kimchi had to be perfectly sour, samgyupsal perfectly crisped; stews had to be piping hot or they might as well have been inedible. The concept of prepping meals for the week was a ludicrous affront to our lifestyle. We chased our cravings daily. If we wanted the kimchi stew for three weeks straight, we relished it until a new craving emerged. We ate in accordance with the seasons and holidays.
When spring arrived and the weather turned, we'd bring our camp stove outdoors and fry up strips of fresh pork belly on the deck. On my birthday, we ate miyeokguk—a hearty seaweed soup full of nutrients that women are encouraged to eat postpartum and that Koreans traditionally eat on their birthdays to celebrate their mothers.
Food was how my mother expressed her 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. I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart it feels like I'm fluent. I fondle the produce and say the words aloud—chamoe melon, danmuji. I fill my shopping cart with every snack that has glossy packaging decorated with a familiar cartoon. I think about the time Mom showed me how to fold the little plastic card that came inside bags of Jolly Pong, how to use it as a spoon to shovel caramel puffed rice into my mouth, and how it inevitably fell down my shirt and spread all over the car. I remember the snacks Mom told me she ate when she was a kid and how I tried to imagine her at my age. I wanted to like all the things she did, to embody her completely.
My grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary. I can tell you with a straight face what it was like watching my mom's hair fall out in the bathtub, or about the five weeks I spent sleeping in hospitals, but catch me at H Mart when some kid runs up double-fisting plastic sleeves of ppeongtwigi and I'll just lose it. Those little rice-cake Frisbees were my childhood, a happier time when Mom was there and we'd crunch away on the Styrofoam-like disks after school, splitting them like packing peanuts that dissolved like sugar on our tongues.
I'll cry when I see a Korean grandmother eating seafood noodles in the food court, discarding shrimp heads and mussel shells onto the lid of her daughter's tin rice bowl. Her gray hair frizzy, cheekbones protruding like the tops of two peaches, tattooed eyebrows rusting as the ink fades out. I'll wonder what my mom would have looked like in her seventies, if she'd have wound up with the same perm that every Korean grandma gets, as though it were a part of our race's evolution. I'll imagine our arms linked, her small frame leaning against mine as we take the escalator up to the food court. The two of us in all black, "New York style," she'd say, her image of New York still rooted in the era of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." She would carry the quilted-leather Chanel purse that she'd wanted her whole life, instead of the fake ones that she bought on the back streets of Itaewon. Her hands and face would be slightly sticky from QVC anti-aging creams. She'd wear some strange high-top sneaker wedges that I'd disagree with. "Michelle, in Korea, every celebrity wears this one." She'd pluck the lint off my coat and pick on me—how my shoulders slumped, how I needed new shoes, how I should really start using that argan-oil treatment she bought me—but we'd be together.
If I'm being honest, there's a lot of anger. I'm angry at this old Korean woman I don't know, that she gets to live and my mother does not, like somehow this stranger's survival is at all related to my loss. That someone my mother's age could still have a mother. Why is she here slurping up spicy jjamppong noodles and my mom isn't? Other people must feel this way. Life is unfair, and sometimes it helps to irrationally blame someone for it.
Sometimes my grief feels as though I've been left alone in a room with no doors. Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I'm colliding with a wall that won't give. There's no escape, just a hard surface that I keep ramming into over and over, a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again.
Excerpted from "Crying in H Mart" by Michelle Zauner. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Zauner. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Recipe: Kimchi Jjigae
Michelle Zauner prepared a family favorite during her interview with correspondent Hua Hsu on "CBS Sunday Morning":
8 oz. pork belly cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup of aged cabbage kimchi cut into bite-sized pieces
¼ onion chopped
2 cups of water
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. gochugaru
1 Tbsp. doenjang paste
1 tsp. sesame oil
Stir-fry onion, pork belly, garlic and kimchi for approximately 3-5 mins. Add the rest of the ingredients and boil for 15 minutes. Top with 1 stalk of chopped scallion and a teaspoon of sesame oil.
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