a taste of home -- 12/8/23
Today's selection -- from Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. When the American musician Michelle Zauner of the alternative pop band Japanese Breakfast suddenly lost her mother to cancer, she found herself frequenting the Korean grocery store H Mart for a taste of home.
“H Marts are usually situated on the outskirts of the city and serve as a secondary center for strip malls of Asian storefronts and restaurants that are always better than the ones found closer to town. We're talking Korean restaurants that pack the table so full of banchan side dishes that you're forced to play a never-ending game of horizontal Jenga with twelve tiny plates of stir-fried anchovies, stuffed cucumbers, and pickled everything. This isn't like the sad Asian fusion joint by your work, where they serve bell peppers in their bibimbap and give you the stink eye when you ask for another round of wilted bean sprouts. This is the real deal.
“You'll know that you're headed the right way because there will be signs to mark your path. As you go farther into your pilgrimage, the lettering on the awnings slowly begins to turn into symbols that you may or may not be able to read. This is when my elementary-grade Korean skills are put to the test--how fast can I sound out the vowels in traffic? I spent more than six years going to Hangul Hakkyo every Friday, and this is all I have to show for it. I can read the signs for churches, for an optometrist's office, a bank. A couple more blocks in, and we're in the heart of it. Suddenly, it's another country. Everyone is Asian, a swarm of different dialects crisscross like invisible telephone wires, the only English words are HOT POT and LIQUORS, and they're all buried beneath an assortment of glyphs and graphemes, with an anime tiger or a hot dog dancing next to them.
“Inside an H Mart complex, there will be some kind of food court, an appliance shop, and a pharmacy. Usually, there's a beauty counter where you can buy Korean makeup and skin-care products with snail mucin or caviar oil, or a face mask that vaguely boasts ‘placenta.’ (Whose placenta? Who knows?) There will usually be a pseudo-French bakery with weak coffee, bubble tea, and an array of glowing pastries that always look much better than they taste.
“My local H Mart these days is in Elkins Park, a town northeast of Philadelphia. My routine is to drive in for lunch on the weekends, stock up on groceries for the week, and cook something for dinner with whatever fresh bounty inspires me. The H Mart in Elkins Park has two stories; the grocery is on the first floor and the food court is above it. Upstairs, there is an array of stalls serving different kinds of food. One is dedicated to sushi, one is strictly Chinese. Another is for traditional Korean jjigaes, bubbling soups served in traditional earthenware pots called ttukbaegis, which act as mini cauldrons to ensure that your soup is still bubbling a good ten minutes past arrival. There's a stall for Korean street food that serves up Korean ramen (basically just Shin Cup noodles with an egg cracked in); giant steamed dumplings full of pork and glass noodles housed in a thick, cakelike dough; and tteokbokki, chewy, bite-sized cylindrical rice cakes boiled in a stock with fish cakes, red pepper, and gochujang, a sweet-and-spicy paste that's one of the three mother sauces used in pretty much all Korean dishes. Last, there's my personal favorite: Korean-Chinese fusion, which serves tangsuyuk--a glossy, sweet-and-sour orange pork seafood noodle soup, fried rice, and black bean noodles.
|Banchan, small side dishes served along with cooked rice in Korean cuisine
“The food court is the perfect place to people-watch while sucking down salty, fatty jjajangmyeon. I think about my family who lived in Korea, before most of them died, and how Korean-Chinese was always the first thing we'd eat when my mom and I arrived in Seoul after a fourteen-hour flight from America. Twenty minutes after my aunt would phone in our order, the apartment ringer would buzz ‘Fur Elise’ in MIDI, and up would come a helmeted man, fresh off his motorcycle, with a giant steel box. He'd slide open the metal door and deliver heaping bowls of noodles and deep-fried battered pork with its rich sauce on the side. The plastic wrap on top would be concave and sweating. We'd peel it off and dribble black, chunky goodness all over the noodles and pour the shiny, sticky, translucent orange sauce over the pork. We'd sit cross-legged on the cool marble floor, slurping and reaching over one another. My aunts and mom and grandmother would jabber on in Korean, and I would eat and listen, unable to comprehend, bothering my mom every so often, asking her to translate.
“I wonder how many people at H Mart miss their families. How many are thinking of them as they bring their trays back from the different stalls. If they're eating to feel connected, to celebrate these people through food. Which ones weren't able to fly back home this year, or for the past ten years? Which ones are like me, missing the people who are gone from their lives forever?
“At one table is a group of young Chinese students, alone without family at schools in America. They have banded together to take the bus forty-five minutes outside the city, into the suburbs of a foreign country for soup dumplings. At another table, there are three generations of Korean women eating three different types of stew: daughter, mother, and grandmother dipping their spoons into one another's bowls, reaching over one another's trays, arms in one another's faces, pinching at their different banchan with chopsticks. None of them pay any heed or give a second thought to the concept of personal space.
“There is a young white man and his family. They giggle together as they try to pronounce the menu. The son explains to his parents the different dishes they've ordered. Maybe he was stationed in Seoul for military service or taught English abroad. Maybe he's the only one in his family with a passport. Maybe this will be the moment his family decides it's time to travel and discover these things themselves.
“There is an Asian guy blowing his girlfriend's mind, introducing her to a new world of flavors and textures. He shows her how to eat mul naengmyeon, a cold noodle soup that tastes better if you add vinegar and hot mustard first. He tells her how his parents came to this country, how he watched his mom make this dish at home. When she made it, she didn't add zucchini; she subbed radishes instead. An old man hobbles over to a neighboring table to order the chicken-and-ginseng porridge that he probably eats here every day. Bells go off for people to collect their orders. Behind the counters, women in visors work without stopping.
“It's a beautiful, holy place. A cafeteria full of people from all over the world who have been displaced in a foreign country, each with a different history. Where did they come from and how far did they travel? Why are they all here? To find the galangal no American supermarket stocks to make the Indonesian curry that their father loves? To buy the rice cakes to celebrate Jesa and honor the anniversary of their loved one's passing? To satisfy a craving for tteokbokki on a rainy day, moved by a memory of some drunken, late-night snack under a pojangmacha tent in Myeong-dong?
“We don't talk about it. There's never so much as a knowing look. We sit here in silence, eating our lunch. But I know we are all here for the same reason. We're all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves. We look for a taste of it in the food we order and the ingredients we buy. Then we separate. We bring the haul back to our dorm rooms or our suburban kitchens, and we re-create the dish that couldn't be made without our journey. What we're looking for isn't available at a Trader Joe's. H Mart is where your people gather under one odorous roof, full of faith that they'll find something they can't find anywhere else.”