Stories / Interviews

Michelle Zauner of Crying in H Mart On Her Favorite H Mart Finds

Morgan Carter

May 29, 2023


Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen

New York Times best-selling author and Grammy-nominated artist Michelle Zauner has added another title to her impressive list of accomplishments: screenwriter. Crying in H Mart, Zauner’s critically acclaimed 2021 memoir exploring grief, loss, and identity, is slated to be adapted into a film directed by Will Sharpe of The White Lotus. As if that wasn’t enough, her band, Japanese Breakfast, will provide the film's soundtrack. In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, writer Morgan Carter caught up with the multi-talented artist to discuss channeling grief, reconnecting to her Korean heritage through food, and her go-to finds at H Mart.

James Beard Foundation: Through Japanese Breakfast, you used music as a way to cope after your mother’s passing in 2014. When did you start using writing as a medium to express these feelings?

Michelle Zauner: I started writing about this in 2016. I was working a job in New York as a sales assistant at an advertising company and I was creatively unfulfilled. It just felt like it would be helpful to unpack some of what had happened because my life had been disrupted in such a major way over the course of six months. I stopped pursuing music, which is what I had wanted to do with my life, and my nuclear family was majorly disrupted. I think, even after writing an album about grief, there was so much more to say in a less impressionistic, cryptic way.
JBF: When did you decide that you wanted to translate this experience into a book?

MZ: I had started cooking Korean food and there was a woman, Maangchi, a Korean YouTube blogger, who had become so meaningful in my life. I started a cute ode to her, this kind of digital guardian on whom I had placed so much of my grief and healing. I thought it was so unique to have this bond with her, but she has so many people who have such a similar experience where they've lost a Korean parent, their Korean adoptee, or they are trying to connect to their spouse. In the process of writing, I realized that there was a book's worth of material there. That was further validated by the response to the The New Yorker piece. I realized I needed a larger format to explore a lot of the ideas I was interested in.

Cover by John Gal

JBF: Speaking of Maangchi, you’ve since become friends and even collaborated on a few projects together. How did that relationship start? 

MZ: I met her in 2016. I went to a talk that she did at the 92nd Street Y and I gave her a copy of my essay before it had been published. When it won Glamour's Essay of the Year, she actually called me and congratulated me. We did a book event together and she was a part of my show. The day after we shot our Munchies series, she invited me to her apartment because it was my 30th birthday, and she made dinner for me, my husband, and my friends. I've been really lucky. She's been nothing but kind.
JBF: Can we ask what she made you? 

MZ: She made bulgogi, her homemade kimchi, and miyeok guk, which is a birthday soup made with seaweed. She bought me a little cake and soju. It was very sweet.
JBF: So, in terms of stocking your pantry, what are the essentials of a Korean kitchen?

MZ: There are three major sauces that every Korean household should have. One is gochujang, which is a red pepper paste; doenjang, a fermented soybean paste; and jjajang, which is a black bean sauce. During the pandemic, I was making a lot of jjajang black bean noodles with this paste—that's like every Korean’s go-to takeout food.  
JBF: Since your book focuses on the bounty of H Mart, what are your favorite H Mart finds, and how do you like to use them in your kitchen?

MZ: Number one has to be Kewpie mayonnaise—I actually have the Kewpie baby tattooed on my arm. My mom used to make this really great scallop sashimi hand roll with fresh scallops, masago, and Kewpie mayonnaise. That was my favorite and most decadent treat for New Year's Eve. I also use it to make spicy mayo with sriracha or I’ll mix it with gochujang to eat with dried squid, peanuts, and beer. That's my favorite late-night snack.  
JBF: Any dishes you are still looking to conquer in the kitchen?

MZ: I would love to make ganjang gejang, which is raw, fermented crab in soy sauce. It's like this unctuous, custardy, uni type of flavor made from blue crab. And, for some reason, I just can't figure out how to make a really crispy pajeon (Korean scallion pancake).
JBF: Are there any dishes that you cook better than what you could find at the store?

MZ: I make a better kimchi jjigae (Korean stew) than I can find anywhere. Everyone has a specific way that they like it. A lot of the time, the broth isn't as deep when you get it at a restaurant. It always puts me in a really bad mood if I have a watery kimchi stew. So, it's almost sacred that I only make it at home because I know it's gonna piss me off [if it's wrong].

Morgan Carter is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Eater, Edible Manhattan, and Food52. Follow her on Instagram @mo_car or on Twitter @MReneeeCarter. 

Looking for more ways to honor AAPI Heritage Month? Check out our #LoveAAPI Restaurant Guide on Instagram featuring AAPI‑owned and led restaurant recommendations from chefs, industry leaders, and the food community across the country.

See more