Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner Remembers the 'Stinky Lunch' Moment
The new VICE host discusses finding herself in Korean food, navigating grief, and the wild world of Yelp reviews.
Photo Credit: Jackie Lee Young
Michelle Zauner’s indie rock project set itself up to be food-adjacent: since 2013, Zauner has played dreamy, lo-fi tracks under the moniker Japanese Breakfast. For Zauner, food has always been about much more than simply what’s on the plate. Born in Seoul and raised in Oregon by a Korean mother and a white father, Zauner’s mixed identity was present on the dinner table, where steak and potatoes might have shared space with kimchi and jajangmyeon.
In the predominantly white town of Eugene, Zauner, like many first-generation, mixed race, and immigrant kids, felt the desire to separate herself from Korean culture during her younger years. Now, she finds herself searching for Korean food and culture—in part to navigate grief. She’s written about that experience in “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” which won Glamour’s essay contest in 2016; and in the acclaimed New Yorker essay, “Crying in H Mart,” which has been picked up by Knopf for an upcoming memoir of the same name.
Zauner’s thoughtful takes on food made her an obvious choice to host MUNCHIES’ new video series Close to Home, which explores the effects of migration on cuisine. In it, Zauner meets with chefs from all over the world to go deep into the ways borders—both physical and theoretical—influence food. Despite her busy travel schedule, I caught up with Zauner to chat more about cultural crossovers, where she eats on tour, and why she’s leaning into the gray area when it comes to talking about food.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
As this series goes, what topics were you the most excited to explore with chefs and other food producers?
We covered cuisine that I was really unfamiliar with, and I was excited to learn about different kinds of cultural crossovers and how that happens. I think that I, throughout the series, was really trying to listen and learn. There's so many different histories there. A lot of that is really hard to find, not things you're able to study. I felt this real need to be a little bit cautious and sensitive about people's history and feelings, because it's different for everyone.
I know at least for my mom, she was really excited every time Korean food made its way over [to the States]. I think my generation is maybe a little more sensitive about it. That's one thing I was interested in talking to Maangchi and Sarah [Lee, co-founder of Kimbap Lab] about on the first episode. I think that Maangchi comes from my mom's generation, where it was like, oh, whoa, I never anticipated Korean culture being so popular in America. But I think that maybe for Sarah’s and my generation—at least, we're closer in age—and just speaking for myself, there's a little tinge of resentment because we grew up in America. We were both made fun of for stinky lunches, and I think that's a different experience that my mom who grew up in Korea didn't have.
Would you say that food was the most immediate entry point into exploring your Korean culture?
I think now it's the easiest way for me to physically connect, but I grew up largely raised by a Korean mother, I went to Korea every other summer, I was born there, I have a whole half of my family that is Korean, I went to Korean school every Friday—Korean people and culture and the history and the food, everything has been ingrained in my life in a very big way.
But I think it was complicated, and I think many immigrant kids and first-gen kids, when you’re young and impressionable, you want to deny any part of your identity that feels different from the larger group. I think there was a part of me that rejected that part of my identity, and then as I grew older I became more comfortable with it.
After my mom passed away, there was a whole slew of complicated reasons why I connected to food—a lot of ugly things that aren't so simple as “food equals my identity.” But I think for a lot of people, yeah, it is an easy access point for people to connect to their culture.
On that note, the series touches on the idea of cultural appropriation versus sharing—where is the dividing line, for you, between the two of those things?
I think that's kind of what I was searching for with each of these people and in all of these episodes, and not really getting a clear answer. I think that it's a spectrum, and I don't think that there is a clear answer. I think that right now we're living in a culture where it's very hard for us to accept gray area and I think this is another example of something, at least from my perspective, that I'm more interested in accepting as a gray area. I think that part of that gray area is having that dialogue, and it's constantly changing.
Do you think it's more of a case-by-case basis than having one set point of view?
Yeah, I think it's a case-by-case basis, but also I think it changes. There are certain things that we thought were chill that we don't feel that way about anymore. Part of constantly having these dialogues is to maybe change our opinions about these kinds of things.
Another idea covered in the series is the idea of "fusion" and of a natural fusion versus the trendy fusion. What has your experience been like with "fusion" food as a genre?
When I think of “fusion,” I don't really think of what we're talking about [in the series]—even though the definition should mean what we're talking about. When I think of a “pan-Asian” restaurant, I think “bad.” Especially on tour, a lot of the time I'll be looking for a Korean restaurant that serves traditional Korean food because that's what I grew up eating. A lot of the times, it'll be a fusion place, and it's not what I'm after and it's really disappointing.
But I think that it's also just like, a word that's developed a bad connotation—kind of like, the same way that if someone were to call you a “foodie,” you would kind of be like, ew, or if someone were to call me a “rock star,” I'd be like, ugh. In the same way, I think that when chefs hear that term, it’s cringe-worthy. I think that for some chefs, fusion means “here are two things that don't naturally go together,” and they feel like these are real people [whose food this is] and there's a real history here behind this food.
You mentioned eating while on tour, so how do you find comfort through food when you're on the road?
I'm looking for Korean food, and it's really hard to find. But typically, I'm just looking for Asian food. Asian noodle soups are my jam on tour, and if I have a bad one, I'll be in a really bad mood all day. There's nothing worse than eating bad Korean food, and at least, my issue with “fusion” is like, this isn't right. I don't want people to eat this bibimbap or whatever and then think that's what it's like, and not like it—or maybe even worse, like it and then go to a traditional Korean place and not like it.
Yeah, I definitely feel that too. I'm a Filipino immigrant and there's not a lot of Filipino food in most cities that I've lived, so if I go to bad places, I feel that, where I’m like, “ugh, this is people's experience with Filipino food.”
It's like emotional—it ruins my whole day. I remember I was flipping through some food magazine, and there was something that said, “Korean food is out, Filipino food is in.” I think the fear of a lot of these fusion places or people co-opting culture is because your history and your cuisine and your culture is not a fad. I think in this industry, things turn over so quickly. It's scary to think like, one day people are going to be like, “oh yeah, Filipino food is out.”
Going back to traveling, are there any cities where you've been surprised by the quality of the Korean food, or how big the Korean food scene was?
I was in Madison, and no offense to the Midwest, but when you're in a smaller city, you don't hold out a whole bunch of hope for good Asian food, I feel like. So you know there are certain cities that you can look forward to, but you think like, Madison, I'm not going to find anything very good there.
I looked on Yelp. There was this Korean restaurant and it had like, three stars. I think there's this cultural misunderstanding, especially in a place like the Midwest where people are really, really polite, and Korean service is all about delivering food really quickly and not really exchanging pleasantries. It's just a different cultural expectation.
But this spot in Madison, it was awesome. I was like, I've never written a Yelp review, but it upsets me so much that this place gets a bad rap. Or that people aren't going to try this food just because people who don't know what traditional Korean food tastes like—or are soured by this experience because they don't understand the culture—are ruining it for other people who just see three stars on Yelp and don't go.
Now, I've left like, two Yelp reviews in my entire life, which is this place in Madison and this other Korean place in Eugene, because people who don't get the culture are leaving these things like, “it has stinky sauce.” That's how the sauce smells; that's how it's supposed to smell. It sucks that you're ruining this immigrant restaurant from thriving because you don't get it.
Nice, I'll definitely keep an eye out if I'm ever in Madison. Is there anything you want to add that I might have forgotten to ask you?
One thing I wanted to add was how special it was for me, and us, to have Maangchi on the show. Her YouTube videos helped me learn how to cook Korean dishes and were a really essential part of my therapeutic processing and grief.
Getting to chat with her about Korean food on the show was absolutely monumental. She’s like the Julia to my Julie, my digital surrogate Korean mom. It was unreal to have her dedicate time out of her busy schedule of working on her cookbook and shooting, directing editing all her own videos—for a channel with over 3 million subscribers—to come be a part of this project. She means so much to me.