Author of ‘Crying In H Mart’ finds comfort at Korean grocery chain after her mother’s death
Michelle Zauner, the musician behind Japanese Breakfast, just released a best-selling memoir called Crying in H Mart. The book is about her relationship with her mother, who died of cancer when Zauner was 25 years old, and how she found solace in the aisles of H Mart.
“H Mart is a Korean grocery chain. It just became a real refuge for me, a really enjoyable place to get my groceries and spark a lot of forgotten memories I had of my childhood and my mom,” Zauner said. “I cry in H Mart all the time. I cried recently because, you know, sometimes you’ll see Korean moms with their kids going off to college and they’re buying them groceries, escorting them along in the same way that I remember being in a grocery store with my mom, and that just wrecks me.”
Zauner is the celebrity guest on the new episode of my podcast Your Last Meal.
“There’s a meal that my mom used to make for me every time I came home from college,” Zauner said. “My mom would pick me up from the airport, and then immediately get to work making the same meal that I looked forward to every single time. She’d bring all of the plates over to the coffee table and I’d eat it on the ground watching TV. My mom would be behind me, with her hand on my shoulder. That’s just, like, love and care. It’s something I’ll never get to eat again. It’s just that meal that’s like I’ll always be someone’s baby, you know? If I could have that again, for my last meal, that would be it.”
Zauner says she’s made the meal herself many times since, but it’s just not the same.
“It’s like you’re a baby,” Zauner laughs. “When it’s your mom making it for you, the food tastes different than when you make it for yourself. You can never replicate it.”
Unfortunately, her Korean-born mom died before she could learn any of her recipes. Immigrant parents and grandparents are notorious for not writing down recipes or measuring ingredients, making it virtually impossible to replicate their comforting dishes once they’re gone.
Filipina-American Seattle chef, Melissa Miranda, is the daughter of immigrants, as is her friend Alan Vu.
“There was this light bulb moment when Alan came to me and was like, ‘Mel, we’re never going to learn our parents’ food unless we shadow them,'” Miranda said. “There’s no cookbooks to really be able to familiarize ourselves with the dishes that aren’t in the restaurants. What about the stuff they cook at home?”
So Miranda shadowed several elder home cooks around Seattle, some who didn’t speak English. She took notes as they cooked, and then recreated their dishes for a pop-up restaurant series called No Cookbooks Allowed. It was so popular, she opened her restaurant Musang a few years ago, featuring Filipino home cooking made with modern techniques and local, seasonal ingredients. Not long before starting the pop-up, she had returned home to Seattle after eight years away cooking in Italy and New York.
“I realized, driving through the Beacon Hill neighborhood where my father immigrated to, all the Filipino restaurants that we had gone to were gone,” Miranda said. “How can we bring education of Filipino food if it doesn’t exist here? We wanted to showcase that there’s so much more than just adobo or pancit. There’s so many more flavors for you to understand.”
“We made it a point to write the menus in Tagalog because there’s such an education and learning point for folks,” she added. “It takes years, but we’re familiar with Vietnamese, and Japanese, and Thai dishes, we can say them and pronounce them; that was kind of a big point for me.”
Miranda opened Musang to preserve the dishes of her culture, and before the pandemic, they offered kids’ cooking classes to make sure the next generation knows the flavors.