By Izzy Rettke ’25 for Fall 2021
Crying in Hmart is a memoir by Michelle Zauner—known musically as Japanese Breakfast—detailing her reckoning with her Korean American identity throughout the course of her mother’s sickness and eventual death. The book opens with her description of Hmart and people watching and comparing all their unique and yet conjoined experiences as they all end up searching for cultural meaning in their food.
The book continues depicting her desperate battle with being ‘Korean enough’ and quantifying her right to her own heritage through each recipe made and each trip back to Seoul. One quote that left me in awe of how on-the-nose she was took place in the beginning of the book as Zauner wanders the aisles of Hmart and wonders, “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?” There were those feelings of not belonging, of never being Asian enough, of needing another ‘fuller’ person as your cultural lifeline. It struck me as I read this book, always in short bursts and always with my eyes blurred with tears, how odd it was to be confronted with your assumption of uniqueness and realize in a moment that’s comforting and jarring, you are not alone.
The intensity of the mother-daughter relationship and the journey of coming into her own identity all intertwined directly with cooking and food is what made this book so special to me, and probably anyone else who has that kind of relationship with their culture. Throughout the book, food is central to how Michelle Zauner has experienced life, how she connects and reconnects with her identity and her family, and how she heals. And in some ways, I was and still am using this book as a road map to figure out my own lesser version of grief for my family after coming to college.
Zauner touches on how her relationship with her mother actually got better when moving away to college, how she survived on instant foods and Korean snacks when the dining halls were unbearable, how even from hundreds of miles away she was still deeply connected to her mom. All these images collided with my own attempts to soothe homesickness via food.
I’ve worked hard to also find comfort in cooking during my time at Wellesley. In times of stress, the preparation of familiar dishes and the organizing of seasonings in my dorm feel like little pieces of home. And believe me, it’s hard. If you can’t drive (like me), your best bet is the tiny Hmart in Cambridge that gets pillaged by Harvard boys and contains, on the best of days, a very limited selection of produce and a few different brands of soy sauce. I’ve resorted to planning what to order on Weee! a week in advance, stocking up on dry goods, frozen dim sum, and only the most hearty of vegetables. Don’t even get me started on trying to really cook anything in my dorm kitchenette. Those burners give me nightmares.
But at the end of the day, it’s more than worth the struggle. Food, to me, is more than physical sustenance. There is a meditative and spiritual quality to preparing the same dishes and flavors that have been enjoyed and imbued with love for hundreds or thousands of years. There is an ineffable element to cultural foods that lies in between the unity in the timelessness of the food’s existence and the distinct, personal relationship to it. The food that’s been made for generations, rooted in folktale and medicine, ancestral and immortal, is the same food of our cousins and mothers and holidays and late nights and winter months of our unique lives.
豆腐花 or doufu fua or douhua (depending on your Chinese literacy and your dialect location) is a dessert made from soy milk turned into a pudding and eaten with sweet or even savory syrups. It can be eaten hot or cold depending on the season or whatever you feel like. I’ll be giving it a try myself to eat warm in the coming cold months, and so should you!
- 5 cups of soy milk
- 1 tablespoon of gypsum or agar-agar
- 1 tablespoon of cornstarch and water slurry
- 1⁄4 cup of water
- 1:1 ratio of cane sugar to water (for the syrup)
- Heat the sugar and water to make a simple syrup and set aside.
- Combine the 1⁄4 cup of water, the slurry, and gypsum.
- Heat up the soy milk in a pan and skim the bubbles until it boils.
- Pour the milk into the gypsum mix, but don’t stir or disturb it after that! You want it to set
- Cover and let sit. It should take 50-90 minutes to set into a pudding, custard-like texture.
- Use a spoon to scoop the pudding carefully. You want to preserve large shapes as much
- Add syrup to a bowl and add doufu to that bowl.