It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Michelle Zauner, a musician who goes by Japanese Breakfast, has an interest in food. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It might however be a surprise that Zauner has written such a thoroughly lovely and reflective memoir, called Crying in H Mart, that celebrates Korean food among the sometimes strained bonds of family and cultural identity, in light of her mother’s unexpected cancer death.
Starting with her childhood in woodsy Oregon, the only daughter of a Korean mom and a bootstrapping American dad, to young adulthood waitressing and pursuing music, to her mother’s illness, and finally a homecoming of sorts performing in Seoul, Zauner’s writing is straightforward and conversational. I loved the heavy helping of Korean words and phrases for food, from gochujang to jjajangmyeon. I also loved the cultural musings on, among other things, placenta-based skin care and the pseudo-prank “ddong chim” (Zauner compares it to a wedgie, but I still have questions). Even better is Zauner’s fully realized portrait of her mother. Chongmi feels so real: her knickknacks, her fastidious cleaning, her body image and beauty product obsessions; as does the slight distance (10% per Chongmi’s advice) between mother and daughter.
Although there are some chuckles in this book, it is mostly a sweetly downbeat affair, full of love and clear-eyed reckoning for one’s parents and one’s identity, bringing it back to food every time. Like the pine nut porridge that Chongmi finally eats after a long absence of appetite, Zauner’s book is simple and nourishing. Highly recommended for fans of Korean food and memoirs of familial loss.