I often think about my mother when I was ten. She seemed so old and worn out, life processed and I have a hard time believing that I am older now by many years. But I wonder—if you add 10 and 8 and 5—the years of us then—if she wasn’t as old as the universe itself; the universe itself a mother.
My mother is a gifted storyteller. When we were little, she loved to put all of us into bed with her and tell us folk tales, ones with divine intervention and eventual retribution (these were rare moments, at that short interval of time before my parents became shopkeepers and each hour was tethered in body and spirit to a cash register).
I grew up listening to my mother gossip with her sisters, friends, and she had this way of turning any incidental story into a very entertaining moral lesson on why one must always be good. Even a simple car accident became a tale of epic connivance and greed.
My father is also a gifted storyteller, but a storyteller of a very different kind. There is no morality in his stories, just sly, hilarious observations. He was evil in his storytelling, waiting until our mouths were full of food before delivering the ultimate punch lines. (Happiness is moments with clear, bright details, unhappiness a dark weight tensed across the psyche.)
It’s inside the elliptical conversations that we get to know our parents.
My trip home is at an end. That hour before leaving for the airport, an uneasy time of last-second thoughts. My mother serves me last-night’s oden for breakfast. She’s reheated it so it’s wonderfully fragrant, a light steam of fermented soy, sugars, fish. (Maybe it’s because it’s so early in the morning) my mother, as she stands and watches me eat, says in a sleepy voice, ‘I still remember the first time I had oden. It was at one of those street carts. I couldn’t believe anything could taste so heavenly. During the war we ate whatever we could get. It was the first time I realized that food could taste good.’
Oden is a dish for deep winter: fish cakes, tofu, hard-boiled eggs, daikon, pouches of mochi, etc. simmered slowly in dashi broth, soul-warming steam cushioning the house against streaky thoughts. Oden is a Japanese dish. The Japanese occupation of Korea was cruel. Driven out, the Japanese left long strands of bitter memories. But also food, which wasn’t bitter and became quite loved. The transcendence of food.*
On her visit back to Korea, it was the food that disappointed my mother the most: ‘Everything was too fishy or too salty or too sweet. I felt sick to my stomach just smelling it. No one was making the food that I wanted. What I wanted was the taste of thirty years ago.’
*Of all the foods the Japanese left behind, my favorites are the deep-fried snacks like korokke (croquettes) and kare-pan (curry bread). Both have savory fillings. The korokke often has mashed potatoes, the kare-pan a casing of dough. Both get a panko (breadcrumb) dunking before being deep-fried.
There’s something distinctive about the smell of kare-pan. The sweetness of the bread, the piquancy of panko that’s been crisped up golden in bubbling hot oil, the tingly bite up the nose of Japanese-style curry, the oil itself. In the muddle of our uprooting, my memories of korokke were displaced and I forgot the meaning of korokke. And then I’m twelve and we’re on a family holiday in L.A. and my parents surprise us with a bag of kare-pan from Koreatown and even before they can open the bag I cry out, caught in sudden memory. ‘You remember these?’ my mother asks, surprised and delighted. ‘When you were little and we were still living in Seoul, Daddy used to ask you what treat you wanted him to bring home, and you’d always cry, “Kokke! Kokke!”’ (I didn’t know the difference between the two. Even now I think of kare-pan as korokke.)
Like so much of the Japanese foods I crave, the deep roots of kare-pan are Portuguese (the curry filling came via the British navy [there are other histories, other claims but I choose this one]). It was around 1543 and the Portuguese came to Japan looking for trade. So far from home, how homesick they must have been for their native foods. Sweet breads, deep-fried pastries; homesickness delighted and transformed the Japanese palate.
It’s homesickness that lingers inside my korokke, like the homesickness in my mother’s oden.
J.A. Pak’s writing has been published in a variety of publications, from 7×7, Unbroken Journal, Joyland, Queen Mob’s Tearoom, Luna Luna to Atticus Review. She likes to write ‘genre fusion’. Check out her ‘A Space Cowgirl’s Book of Comfort Food Recipes’, a sci-fi/foodie blog mash-up.’