Apr 19, 2021
Eating Korean food with Japanese Breakfast
Brooklyn’s indie rock darling—and author—finds comfort, community and a little comedy in food
Is it a fish cake, or a potato? Michelle Zauner isn’t sure.
Sitting at the end of a long table in Insa, on Douglass Avenue in Gowanus, she searches with her chopsticks for another one of the darker chunks in the bowl of tteokbokki, a Korean dish that normally consists mostly of thick, elongated rice cakes sitting in a spicy red sauce.
“I don’t know, it might be a fish cake, with some potato. The texture is like potato,” she says, looking away in focus. “Probably a potato.”
It’s rare for Zauner to be confused by a Korean dish. She’s best known as the musician Japanese Breakfast, who has drawn acclaim for her genre-bending rock and indie pop. But she’s also a food connoisseur, especially of the Korean variety, inheriting a love of the cuisine from her late Korean mother.
She has written about food before, and even hosted a short-lived food show for Vice’s Munchies vertical—her love of eating of course is also present in her stage name—but on Tuesday, she’ll be rising to a new level of culinary stardom: She will publish the much-anticipated “Crying in H Mart,” what she calls a “food memoir,” about her early family life, her troubled teenage years and her process of reckoning with her mother’s early death from cancer—all paired with her intense and complicated relationship to Korean food, which acts as an unbreakable tie to her mother and eventually a tool to help her heal. H Mart is the Korean supermarket chain with over 80 locations across the U.S.; an essay Zauner wrote with the same name appeared in The New Yorker in 2018 and had her swarmed with attention from the literary world.
Zauner, newly 32 on the recent weeknight at Insa, is an Aries and, she says, it shows. Instead of the creative attire she’s becoming known for in her many fashion shoots and self-directed music videos, she’s wearing a simple black long-sleeved shirt and loose light denim jeans. She’s a little burnt out, probably from the fact that she’s been doing up to nine interviews a day ahead of the book release. She scrolls through her schedule on her phone, an endless stream of color coded rectangles, to prove it. On Wednesday she announced a slate of virtual and in-person book tour events for April and May. And that’s all besides her music rollout—she has a new album coming out in June, and released her latest single from it last week (it’s set in, where else, a supermarket).
“My schedule is … wild,” she says.
First she orders a bowl of cuttlefish jerky to share—one of the many lessons about Korean food in her book is that Koreans always have snacks, or anju, while drinking. The fish jerky is thin, wiry and chewy, and coated in a sweet gochujang sauce.
In the book, as her mother gets diagnosed with and deals with stomach cancer—an especially cruel disease for someone who loved food—Zauner looks back on her upbringing: how she felt out of sorts growing up in Eugene, Oregon, with a white father and Korean mother, not feeling fully of any one ethnic identity in a predominantly white place; how she constantly fought with her perfectionist mother; and how her relationship to Korean food—always there, but never fully embraced until adulthood—exemplifies so much of all of those dynamics.
As she would write later in the New Yorker essay, which is the first chapter of the book: “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”
The book is full of descriptions of different Korean dishes, all with their own symbolic meanings. Zauner tries to feed her mother jatjuk, a soothing pine nut porridge, during her sickest days, and later returns to it to make for herself. There’s naengmyeon, a thin glass noodle made from buckwheat and vegetables that’s tradition in North Korea—eating it in South Korea represents a sort of peace offering. And after her mother’s death, during a visit to Korea, her aunt serves her miyeokguk, a “hearty seaweed soup full of nutrients that pregnant women are encouraged to eat postpartum.”
She has almost a photographic memory of all of the dishes throughout — ones she makes, ones she is served, ones she finds on vacations — a sensory illustration of how deeply those years of her life were singed into her.
“The thing that’s nice about food is, it’s easy to recreate,” she says, opposed to the brain-wringing process of translating ideas into musical sounds.
The small glass of orange and ginger house soju is far too sweet, so Zauner orders a bottle of Jinro brand Chamisul soju—the most consumed spirit in the world. After a couple of shot glasses worth of it, her cheeks redden slightly.
Dinner is served
Then the main courses arrive: a heaping plate of japchae (sweet potato noodles with vegetables); a large order of crunchy buseot twigim (tempura fried mushrooms) and the tteokbokki. Zauner had ordered a “seafood corndog”—listed in quotes on the menu—to be served with a gochujang ketchup, but it never came. It’s better that way, she says.
“I definitely don’t want it,” she says. “I always order too much, it’s crazy.”
The “corndog” prompts a question—is this food “authentic” enough? Does that matter to her?
“That’s a loaded question,” she says with a laugh. “It’s authentic in that it’s a Korean woman’s vision, and I think she has a great understanding of Korean food, but I wouldn’t say this is like the Korean restaurants I grew up going to. Which is exciting and a different type of experience.”
Zauner’s father met her mother while working in Seoul and convinced her to move back to the U.S. with him. But Zauner spent chunks of each summer going to Seoul with her mother to visit family, and it was sometimes a wrenching experience to come back. There was one Korean restaurant in Eugene that her mother often took her to.
Today Zauner is just happy Korean food and culture are being disseminated so much more across America, thanks in part to the K-Pop boom, Korean film (yes, she loved “Minari”) and the surging popularity of Korean food.
“Kids in my middle school had no idea where Korea was, or what Korea was, which seems impossible for a lot of people to wrap their heads around now,” she says. “But you know, it’s in the book, I literally was asked when I was younger, ‘Are you Chinese or Japanese?’ There were no other references.”
So why “Japanese” Breakfast then?
“I thought it was a funny joke,” she says.
Nearly a decade ago, Zauner had a Tumblr that she would upload music to, and she found aesthetically pleasing images of Japanese breakfasts to accompany each song. At that point, she says she had never been asked about her Korean heritage, and she wasn’t keen on talking about it. But if she could start over, she’d choose a different name today.
“I am waiting for the moment that someone leads a tirade to cancel the shit out of me,” she says.
Cooking for herself
In the wake of her mother’s death, Zauner attempted to keep her memory alive through cooking. She found–and still finds–the drawn-out process of fermenting kimchi therapeutic and calming. And in the book, she finds a metaphor for it.
I had thought fermentation was controlled death. Left alone, a head of cabbage molds and decomposes…But when brined and stored, the course of its decay is altered…It exists in time and transforms. So it is not quite controlled death, because it enjoys a new life altogether…
The memories I had stored, I could not let fester. Could not let trauma infiltrate and spread, to spoil and render them useless…The culture we shared was active, effervescent in my gut and in my genes, and I had to seize it, foster it so it did not die in me.
These days Zauner has also moved on to learning how to make other Korean dishes, with the help of an inspiration of hers who gets prominent mention in the book: Maangchi, a Korean chef with nearly 5 and a half million YouTube subscribers. She’s tried things like ganjang-gejang, crabs marinated in soy sauce, and thick wang mandu dumplings.
But Zauner lives near the Myrtle-Wyckoff L train stop in Bushwick, and there’s no H Mart in Brooklyn. Most weekends she drives out to one in Flushing, a convergence point for the area’s large Korean community. In contrast, Brooklyn’s Korean population is spread out, without a centralized Korean neighborhood.
Location is relative for Zauner, though. She decamped to Korea for a few months while writing her book, and she wants to go back and spend a full year there, to document her attempt to become more fluent in the language. She’ll of course be back to touring soon, as Covid restrictions ease up and she looks to promote the new album. A slew of fall dates have already been announced. And she said that there are talks about turning “Crying in H Mart” into a film, which could be filmed in Oregon.
One thing is for sure—she’s going to keep cooking.
“With writing, I guess there are small amounts of intuitive elements, but it’s also navigating thoughts and memory and thinking very hard and feeling really inferior and really struggling at a computer for long hours at a time,” she says. “And I feel like that’s what the opposite of making food is. If I fail at cooking, it’s kind of funny.”
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