In her New York Times bestselling memoir, ‘Crying in H Mart’ (Knopf), Michelle Zauner, lead singer of indie band Japanese Breakfast, recounts the loss of her mother to cancer – and the comfort she received. found in the aisles of a Korean-owned grocery chain.
Listen to an audio clip of “Crying in H Mart” (and read the excerpt below), and don’t miss correspondent Hua Hsu’s interview with Michelle Zauner on “CBS Sunday Morning” on January 30!
Also check out Zauner’s recipe below for a family favorite: Kimchi Jjigae.
PLAY AN AUDIO SAMPLE: “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner (MP3)
Ever since my mom died, I’ve been crying at the H Mart.
H Mart is a supermarket chain specializing in Asian cuisine. The H represented han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “an arm full of groceries.” H Mart is where skydiving kids flock to find the brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home. This is where Korean families buy rice cakes to make tteokguk, the beef and rice cake soup that heralds the new year. It’s the only place you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it’s the only place that really understands how much garlic you’ll need for the type of food your people eat. H Mart is the freedom of the single aisle “ethnic” section in regular grocery stores. They don’t put Goya beans next to sriracha bottles here. Instead, you’ll probably find me crying near banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of soy sauce eggs and my mother’s cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, clutching a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding ground pork and chives into the thin batter. Sobbing near the dry goods, wondering, Am I still Korean if there’s no one left to call and ask what brand of seaweed we used to buy?
Growing up in America with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, I relied on my mother to access our Korean heritage. Although she never really taught me how to cook (Koreans tend to disavow measurements and only provide cryptic instructions like “add sesame oil until it tastes from mom”), she raised me with a typical Korean appetite. It meant a respect for good food and a predisposition to eat emotionally. We were demanding on everything: the kimchi had to be perfectly sour, the samgyupsal perfectly crispy; the stews had to be piping hot or they might as well have been inedible. The concept of preparing meals for the week was a ridiculous affront to our way of life. We chased our cravings daily. If we wanted the kimchi stew for three weeks straight, we savored it until a new craving emerged. We ate according to the seasons and holidays.
When spring came and the weather turned, we would bring our camping stove outside and fry some fresh pork belly strips on the patio. On my birthday, we ate miyeokguk, a hearty, nutrient-dense seaweed soup that women are encouraged to eat after giving birth and Koreans traditionally eat on their birthday to celebrate their mothers.
Food was my mother’s way of expressing her love. No matter how critical or cruel she might seem – constantly pushing me to meet her unsolvable expectations – I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she made and the meals she cooked for me the way I loved them. I barely speak Korean, but at H Mart I feel like I’m fluent. I caress the products and pronounce the words aloud: melon chamoe, danmuji. I fill my basket with each snack whose shiny wrapper is decorated with a familiar cartoon. I think of the time Mom showed me how to fold the little plastic card that was inside the Jolly Pong bags, how to use it as a spoon to scoop caramel puffed rice into my mouth, and how it inevitably fell on 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 love everything she did, to embody her completely.
My grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary. I can tell you without laughing what it was like to see my mother’s hair fall out in the bathtub, or about the five weeks I spent sleeping in hospitals, but catch me at the H Mart when a kid rushes on ppeongtwigi’s double fisted plastic muffs and i’m just gonna lose it. Those little rice cake-shaped frisbees were my childhood, a happier time when mom was around and we crunched on the styrofoam-shaped discs after school, splitting them like packing peanuts that dissolved like sugar on our tongues.
I will cry when I see a Korean grandmother eating seafood noodles in the food court, throwing shrimp heads and mussel shells on the lid of her daughter’s tin rice bowl. Her frizzy gray hair, her cheekbones high like the tops of two peaches, her tattooed eyebrows rusting as the ink faded. I wonder what my mother would have looked like in her 60s, if she had ended up with the same perm that all Korean grandmothers have, as if it were part of the evolution of our race. I imagine our arms linked, her little body leaning against mine as we take the escalator to the food court. The two of us in all black, “New York style”, she said, her image of New York still rooted in the era of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. She would carry the quilted leather Chanel handbag she had wanted all her life, instead of the fake ones she had bought in the back streets of Itaewon. Her hands and face would be slightly sticky from QVC anti-aging creams. She’d be wearing weird high-top wedge sneakers that I wouldn’t agree with. “Michelle, in Korea, every celebrity wears this.” She was ripping the lint off my coat and lashing out at me – how much my shoulders sagged, how badly I needed new shoes, how badly I should really start using this oil treatment of argan that she had bought me – but we would be together.
If I’m honest, there’s a lot of anger. I’m angry at this old Korean woman that I don’t know, that she gets to live and not my mother, as if the survival of this foreigner is somehow linked to my loss. That someone my mother’s age can still have a mother. Why is she here sipping spicy jjamppong noodles and not my mom? Other people must feel this. Life is unfair and sometimes it helps to blame someone irrationally.
Sometimes my grief makes me feel like I’ve been left alone in a room with no door. Every time I remember that my mother died, I feel like I hit a wall that won’t give way. There is no escape, just a hard surface I keep stomping on, a reminder of the unchanging reality that I will never see again.
Excerpt from “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Zauner. Excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.
Recipe: Kimchi Jjigae
Michelle Zauner cooked up 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 aged cabbage kimchi cut into bite-sized pieces
¼ chopped onion
2 cups of water
1 C. chopped garlic
1 C. gochugaru
1 tbsp. doenjang paste
1 green onion
1 C. Sesame oil
Sauté the onion, pork belly, garlic and kimchi for about 3-5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and boil for 15 minutes. Garnish with a stalk of chopped green onion and a teaspoon of sesame oil.
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