it’s been a little over a year since i started this substack. the intention, in the beginning, was to write about momofuku because i spent a lot of time thinking about momofuku and word-vomiting thoughts on IG stories, often in tiny font that crowded the screen. my writing mentor (the inimitable christine h. lee) told me to stop doing that and start putting my thoughts into a substack instead. i took her advice, hastily set up an account under the name “momofuku brain,” and sent out my first post on 2019 november 22.
it’s weird to think that it’s been a whole year, more so because of the year it’s been. i wrote most of this substack during the pandemic. i changed its name to “i love you, egg” in july, halfway into the pandemic. i’ve been sending out at least two posts every month (except for november). that’s not bad — for me.
things have happened in the last year while everything about life feels like it’s stalled. on 2019 december 3, my first piece of food writing was published in catapult, and it remains an essay that means the world to me. in july, buzzfeed reader published an essay that i was scared to have out in the world because it made me vulnerable in whole new ways, because it was about virginity and purity culture and body shaming. in august, my tiny little substack was featured in an article on taste titled “the future of food media is in your inbox” next to much more legit, serious food writers and their substacks with large followings. in some ways, 2020 has been a good year for me, which feels a strange thing to say because 2020 has been such a discombobulating, debilitating year, but i think a lot of what was good came from this space, my tiny beans substack. thank you for being here.
a few weeks ago, i went to get doughnuts and boba with a friend. because this is the time of covid, we met in the parking lot, where i sat in my car, my dog in my lap. as she chewed on a jelly doughnut, she asked, do you think the pandemic has changed you? that you’ve changed during the pandemic, because of it?
in a recent conversation with my dad, he said that it’s the people who show up for us during difficult times we remember (or should remember) most. i don’t disagree, but, personally, i think it means more, the people i reach out to when i have good news, the people i invite to celebrate with me. that isn’t something that comes naturally to me, though maybe not for reasons you may think.
back in autumn 2013, i started querying agents for my novel-in-stories. i sent out a few cold queries the friday before thanksgiving, and i walked over to target once those emails were out because i’d been working non-stop and needed to get out of my apartment, away from my computer. as i was paying, someone called and left a message. when i checked outside, it was my dream agent at the time, asking if i could send her my full manuscript because she wanted to take it with her to read over thanksgiving.
i called her back after i’d left target, and we spoke briefly. it was almost the end of the business day, so i practically ran home and emailed her my book. i should have been giddy and ecstatic — and i was — but my sharpest memory from that day is not the excitement of my dream agent replying so quickly to a cold email but how i felt, standing on the sidewalk with this exciting news and no one to call. it’s the loneliest i’ve ever felt, and loneliness has been my constant companion for so much of my life.
i’m still not in the habit of sharing good news with people directly. my impulse is to share something on, say, IG stories to a broader public than to text someone directly, inundate them potentially with my feelings. i’m afraid of being Too Much; i’m afraid i’m overreacting to something that isn’t a big deal at all and forcing them to be happy with me, for me.
for example, in early november, the week of the election, i learned that my kawi essay was a notable mention in best american food writing 2020. i didn’t fully believe it until i’d bought the book and saw it printed in the back, my essay listed among other “notable writing from 2019.”
at first, it was exciting — the kawi essay was the first piece of food writing i had published, and it’s an essay about a restaurant and chef who mean a tremendous amount to me. to have it read, to have it noted, was thrilling and exciting, not only because it was something i had written but because it was this essay specifically.
then the doubt started creeping in. maybe it wasn’t cool to be so excited, maybe it wasn’t a big deal, maybe it was nothing to be proud of because it’s not like my piece had been included in the anthology. maybe it’s weird to be so happy over an essay about a restaurant whose future could very well be in limbo because of this pandemic. maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that, maybe it’s sad that my life is so empty and purposeless that this little thing is all i have to be so proud of.
i had to stop and talk myself down from this negative-speak multiple times, and it frustrated me because why was i like this? i’ve struggled my whole life with feeling like i am not good enough — i’m smart, yes, but not smart enough. i have talent, but i’m not talented enough. to put it in terms asian tiger parents might understand, i’m a B+, not an A.
that has literally been the case in my academic life where i’ve come one, two points away from that desired grade, and it’s played out in other ways, too — in being a finalist when applying to fellowships and mentorships but not being chosen, making it to final steps in interviews but losing the job to the other person being considered, getting third place in competitions but failing to win first. my mother has sighed over me too many times to count, shaken her head as i’ve come so close to achievements but never actually made it, and this has often been cast up to me as an example of how i have no follow-through and lack discipline and perseverance. if i could be more consistent, if i could have a little more grit, then maybe i would be good enough.
or maybe, i’m just not good enough.
in november, majordomo opened for outdoor dining for a tiny window of time, two, maybe three, weekends, before los angeles shut down outdoor dining.
it was reservation only, and the meal started at $45/person, which provided three spreads (butter with honey, hozon dip, spicy lamb) to eat with bing. it also included three starter dishes — a tomato salad (soooo good and bright and tomato-y with a savory hint from the dressing and a drizzle of sesame oil), a bounty bowl (you really can’t beat california produce, and the domojang that came as a dip was ridiculously delicious), and delicately tempura-fried shisito peppers stuffed with sausage. you had to pre-select your entree when you made your reservation, and my cousin and i went with the whole boiled chicken, which is really for 3-4 people, but she could take home the leftovers.
the whole boiled chicken is one of my favorite dishes at majordomo. during non-covid times, the whole boiled chicken is brought to your table to show, and it’s a gleaming, very pale chicken sitting in a clear broth in a pot. the chicken is then served two ways — first, the breasts are removed and sliced, served over chicken fat rice. one side is topped with a scallion ginger sauce, the other with a fermented black bean sauce. reminiscent of hainanese chicken rice, this is incredibly delicious, all comfort and warmth and nostalgia.
next, the dark meat is shredded and made into a soup with mushrooms, bok choy, and hand-torn noodles. i’m not a soup person, but this is a take on chicken noodle soup i love, one i could eat multiple bowls of. the broth is light but also meaty and rich, the vegetables bright and not overcooked, and the mushrooms absorb the broth and fill your mouth with so much flavor as you chew. it’s a great soup, perfect for cooler nights.
this was the one outdoor dining i did in LA, and i do still wonder about this, whether loving a restaurant means showing up to support or staying away. i picked up takeaway from majordomo occasionally while in town, though never really full meals because i had neither the budget nor the people for large-format takeaway, especially given that my parents are fairly pork-averse. i always try to be as safe as possible when dining and tip as much as i can, but i don’t know? given how high covid rates are currently, i don’t know that i’d do outdoor dining for the next few weeks. i will, however, continue to order takeaway as often as i can.
i have a thing for restaurant bathrooms, and i have a ranking of momofuku’s. my favorite, by far, was the one at bar wayo — the forest green/yellow wood is such a gorgeous palette. next is the majordomo bathroom, where the stalls are separate, the sink outside in a public space, and it’s all black subway tiles and dark woods. the bathroom in ko’s bar area is airy and chilly, stone walls and moody lighting and automatic soap dispensers and trash cans that take me too long to figure out that they’re automatic, despite the labels that clearly state so.
noodle bar east village and nishi’s bathrooms bleed into each other in my memory — i think both are yellow woods and look similar to each other, in the way that the bathrooms at kawi and momofuku’s would-have-been bbq space also bleed into each other with more black subway tiles and cool lighting. in the latter case, though, it’s that i think the would-have-been bbq place had a bathroom that resembles kawi’s. i don’t remember CCDC’s bathroom, just the curtain dividing it from the dining room, and noodle bar uptown doesn’t have a customer bathroom of its own, sends guests back out into the mall, down a long hallway, and to a public restroom.
i’ll miss ssäm’s tiny bathrooms, barely enough room to turn in or, if you’re me, shrug off your jumpsuit, with their wallpaper and dark lighting.
at majordomo, my cousin and i also order the fried oxtail with salsa seca, even though we have more than enough food for the two of us. it’s my unspoken rule — if i’m at a momofuku restaurant and they have anything with salsa seca, i eat the thing because salsa seca is one of my favorite things across the momoverse. i’ve missed it a lot during this pandemic.
i’ve been thinking about that question posed by my friend in that parking lot — do you think the pandemic has changed you? my conclusion is that, no, i don’t think the pandemic has changed me, not really, but it has amplified things that already existed about me. more specifically, i think the pandemic has taken certain insecurities and blown them up, fears i’ve long lived with, anxieties i’ve carried for some time. the pandemic has made them loom even darker in my mind.
case in point: that novel-in-stories i was pitching seven years ago never went anywhere. it was considered by a few more agents, but it was constantly rejected with the same feedback — the writing was stellar, the idea interesting but macabre, but it would be difficult to sell, and it was too dark. there needed to be more hope, something to make the pages easier to turn.
the last rejection came in 2018, and the book has sat on my hard drive since. i’ve almost burned it (metaphorically) multiple times, and it’s the main reason i carry so much self-loathing and resentment when it comes to writing. the manuscript carries so much baggage, and i wonder why i keep it. i don’t know if i hope that i’ll come back to it one day, to make the edits i know the book needs and put in that year of work to make it ready again for querying.
i just don’t have the faith the effort is worth it anymore.
and yet — as i’ve mentioned on this substack before, i’m working on a book proposal now, but there’s a different feel to it. i’m so much more hesitant to talk about it, even though i want to share, because i feel so much shame and embarrassment to say the words i’m working on a book. again. i’m doing this again. i failed miserably the first time around, wasted so many years i could have been investing into a more viable career, but here i am — i’m doing this again.
the pandemic has blown all this up, made it into more of a monster than maybe it would have been during “normal” times. i’ve been unemployed since the end of march, getting by on unemployment and obliterating my savings, until i started temp work at the end of october, and it’s been simultaneously unsurprising and shocking how much my lack of work has whittled me down. i feel like i have no worth because, somehow, my worth, my self, has become attached to work.
when i lost my faith in 2016, i wasn’t prepared for how much the foundation of my world, my identity, would crumble from under my feet. i’ve felt like i’ve been drifting since, trying to figure out who i am and what i believe in and where i find my hope, and the pandemic has only worked to further unmoor me. i struggle daily with self-loathing and self-hatred, and, with nothing better to do, i burrow into my brain and poke at myself, examining my history and trying to figure out how i ended up here.
so many things came out of that period in 2016. my fascination with momofuku started in earnest then, too, but that had nothing to do with faith but that momofuku, too, was changing then. i still argue that nishi marked a shift in momofuku, one that majordomo then pivoted on, placing momofuku on a different trajectory that led naturally to kawi to bar wayo to the would-have-been bbq restaurant.
i attribute my own personal interest to this shift — nishi got me more curious, then majordomo fully piqued my interest, and kawi brought it all home, making momofuku personal.
i’ve resisted writing this book, working on this book proposal for much of 2020, but, as this pandemic has also made very clear, this restaurant group means so much to me, and i’m terrified of the changes this pandemic will continue to force upon it. nishi and CCDC have already closed permanently. ssäm bar is moving, taking over the bar wayo space. the would-have-been bbq restaurant will no longer be. as i bite down fury at how our governments are continuing (still!) to fail independent restaurants, i’m terrified this book of mine could be a eulogy that remembers something i love, but then i snap back against that because the people at momofuku are working hard to keep going, to survive this difficult time, and all i can do is what i can with my limited means — order takeaway as often as possible, buy more chili crunch and soy sauce, and write this love letter because, as i have been learning over this pandemic and through the writing of this substack, momofuku has, over the years, given me a lens through which to see the world and, in connection, myself within it.
as helen rosner wrote so poignantly in a recent instagram caption, “i think a lot about what it means to fall in love with a restaurant, and over many years of thinking about this i’ve decided that it really means falling in love with yourself — a version of yourself, one that the restaurant helps you to inhabit, or try on, or emphasize.”
it’s strange to be at the end of the year. what a strange year we’ve survived.
but here we are — it’s been a year of this substack, and i’ve gotten more personal in this space than i thought i would, but that shouldn’t have surprised me. i still have no plans to monetize. i’m grateful for every single one of you who is here, who opens these long missives when they arrive in your inbox, who takes the time to read and like and reply, even if my inability to respond to emails, comments, DMs extends here, too. i read all your emails. i’m sorry i’m incapable of replying in a timely manner, which means i never reply at all. i wish we could get coffee or share a meal or something that is face-to-face and physical.
i wish i could share momofuku with you in a way that is more than words and photos in a substack, but i can’t. maybe one day it will be possible with some of you. maybe you will find yourself in a city with a momofuku restaurant and find your own way in. maybe momofuku means nothing to you at all. whatever the case, whatever the future holds, thank you for being here.
this is a free substack, and it will remain so for the near future. these substacks do, however, take a tremendous amount of time to plan, write, and edit (and re-write), so, if you like what you’ve read and would maybe like to contribute a cup of coffee, here are my ko-fi and venmo!