Michelle Zauner doesn’t know why her memoir “Crying in H Mart” resonates with so many people and remains on bestsellers lists more than a year after publication.
“I think I wrote something very vulnerable, and I would hope people could feel that,” Zauner, 33, speculates. “Unfortunately, it’s a very universal feeling to experience loss, to have complicated relationships with your mother, to look to food as a source of comfort and memory.”
As readers navigate her book’s powerful emotions, they’re also taken on a mouthwatering journey of Korean cuisine. Dishes like kimchi jjigae (spicy kimchi tofu stew), galbi ssam, (marinated short ribs wrapped in perilla leaves), and naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) in a broth. This food helps Zauner meditate on her mother’s death from cancer and her own identity as a biracial Korean American.
Since the book’s 2021 publication, Zauner has also enjoyed critical acclaim with her band Japanese Breakfast and its exuberant third album, “Jubilee.” Japanese Breakfast was nominated for two Grammy Awards (best new artist; best alternative album) at last April’s ceremony. The band will perform Sept. 29 at Roadrunner in Allston-Brighton.
“In terms of food, what ‘Crying in H Mart’ does is place dishes that might not be as familiar to people within a context that helps them feel more familiar,” says Eric Kim, Zauner’s friend and author of the cookbook “Korean American.” And “I think her book really helps [Korean] people feel seen.
“When you read a passage about a childhood food that you’ve never seen on a page before, it’s sort of overwhelming in a lot of ways because you see yourself in it,” he says. “Reading ‘Crying in H Mart’ made me realize how much I’ve gone my whole life without seeing Korean food represented in a very honest, raw, unfiltered, un-whitewashed way.”
The Korean American Community Foundation contends Zauner’s book “unpacked the full complexity of what it is to be Korean American,” says Kyung B. Yoon, the executive director. The organization gave Zauner its trailblazer award in June. “She illustrated the differences between generations and cultures through Korean food as a language of love and the role of food as place of comfort and longing.”
Yoon says many Korean mothers, like Zauner’s, aren’t as demonstrative as Western mothers. “In Korean, a typical parent doesn’t say “I love you,” she says. “But a Korean mom will say: ‘Bab meog-eoss-eo?’: ‘Have you eaten?’ "
Zauner is currently revising her screenplay of “Crying in H Mart”; the book’s film rights were purchased by MGM. Japanese Breakfast will provide the soundtrack. She’s planning a move to Korea in 2024 to learn the language fluently and then write about the experience.
Zauner resides in Brooklyn and spoke to the Globe by telephone. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. Our region has three H Mart grocery stores (Cambridge, Burlington, and Quincy). You’ve become H Mart’s unofficial ambassador. When you go to an H Mart now, what do you feel?
A. There are times when I just feel soft and I’m looking for something and I do still feel emotional. It’s mostly when I see parents with their children. But that kind of response is less intense and violent than it was when I first lost my mom and was talking about these experiences. Now a lot of times they’ll be playing the video that I filmed. It’s funny. I feel like I have this weird little secret when I go there now.
Q. In your speech at the Korean American Community Foundation awards, you said you felt more connected now to the Korean American community. Has food played a role in that?
A. Korean food has always been part of my life. I don’t really feel like that’s something that’s new. What is new is being known in the Korean American community and part of that is through my music and a larger part of that is through my writing.
I have always been very afraid of the Korean community, a little bit, because I think my mom raised me to feel very judged by them. When I went to the Korean grocery store or the Korean church or Korean restaurant, I knew I was going to see one of my mom’s Korean friends or relatives, [and] I felt like I had to present more properly. I had to have better etiquette. I always felt that way, even in adulthood. So, to be able to create something that encompassed a very personal journey and identity within the Korean American community and to be embraced so whole-heartedly and beloved was so validating. It was a wonderful gift.
Q. You talk about Maangchi and her popular Korean YouTube cooking channel in your book. Do you think Internet cooks have helped people connect with their culture?
A. Absolutely! I know that it has because it’s certainly helped me. Maangchi has so many viewers that also have that experience, a lot of transracial adoptees who have no access to an English-speaking, authentic version of how to make food from their culture. People like me who lost a parent who ties them to that culture. There are people who are full Korean and raised in the US and never learned [how to cook Korean food].
Q. What Korean recipes are approachable for novices?
A. Kimchi jjigae is pretty easy. The key is to get something called mugen: mature kimchi that’s been aged longer than three months. They actually sell it at H Mart. You want to cook with kimchi that’s a little bit funkier and more mature than the kind you eat on the side.
Kimchi fried rice is also extremely easy. That’s a late-night hangover staple for me because anyone can do it in any condition. You just use leftover, day-old rice with this mature kimchi, a little bit of its juices, then you can add pork belly or Spam and then add a fried egg on top with sesame oil.
Q. What Korean cookbooks do you recommend?
A. I wish I was at my apartment right now because I collect them! I have to rep, obviously, both of Maangchi’s cookbooks. They would be my number one. I do love Hooni’s book (Hooni Kim, “My Korea”). Eric Kim, of course and his new book “Korean American.” It’s very beautiful. I think he’s a really poetic soul and I really enjoy his food writing. And “Korean Home Cooking” by Sohui Kim; she also became a friend of mine. She runs a restaurant in Brooklyn called Insa. I think that book is really great.
Q. Your new song “Paprika” speaks of unwinding a great knot to open the floodgates towards joy. Do you feel your book and “Jubilee” are strands that have been unwound?
A. Making art in general is like making a Gordian knot. When it works, when it unravels, and you don’t know how exactly you even got it there, at that point you just take the knife.
To me, “Paprika” is very much about the joys and complications of making art and also doing what you love. It can be so challenging, this lifestyle. I know that it is very enchanting from the outside. But it can be difficult to be in the public eye this way, and to be analyzed and judged. When it’s great, it’s great. And I think that song is very much a reminder of that.
These projects were years in the making. There was a lot of self-doubt and a lot of time and struggle and sleepless nights trying to figure out if it was good or not. It’s a real joy that they worked out the way that they did.
With Yo La Tengo. At Roadrunner, Sept. 29. roadrunnerboston.com
Peggy Hernandez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Peggy_Hernandez.