I remember the day when the song came out in the early 1980s. I don't exactly remember what I was doing when I heard it - the way many Americans remember Nov. 22, 1963 - but it still was a historic moment in Korean popular-music history. My favorite band, San-wulim (roughly, "Mountain Echoes"), wrote a song about salted mackerel in the refrigerator. It was a departure of seismic scale from the "please walk all over me, my love" elegies, which traced their roots far back in Korean history.
"A song about mackerel? Holy mackerel!" was everybody's response. The song, called "Mother and the mackerel," is about a teenage boy discovering his mother's love in the middle of the night, when he finds salted mackerel in the fridge prepared to be cooked the next day for him. The ultimate message was still love, but the fishy symbolism was as fresh as a mackerel dropped by a sea gull flying over a pier.
My mother, too, used to make fabulous braised mackerel. First went a layer of sliced daikon (Japanese radish) or Korean chives into the pot. Then a layer of mackerel cut into about three-inch pieces was added, followed by soy sauce, red-pepper flakes, and crushed garlic. She would cover it and let it simmer for an hour or so. The fish was succulent and full of subtle flavors in delectable harmony. My father, my sisters, and I would always fight over it.
The only drawback was the strong fishy odor that lingered for days. I am sure that in Korea back then (before the invasion of McDonald's and Pizza Hut), the composite olfactory sensation in everything we ate included a trace of mackerel, along with other serious offenders like kimchi (pickled cabbage) and garlic. It didn't much matter, however, because most Koreans' sense of smell was severely impaired by our dietary camaraderie.
My neighbors ate mackerel for dinner, too. Sometimes even for breakfast.
It has been years since my family shared mackerel together. Once a family of five, we now live on three different continents and four different cities. My sister who lives in Paris complained to me one day that she couldn't enjoy fish as much as she would like because her French boyfriend did not like the smell of fish.
"I am afraid that it's an acquired taste," he said.
Koreans love fish; we happen to come from a peninsula where 70 percent of the land consists of mountains. Not exactly terrain conducive to raising cattle. Our love for fish comes from its abundance. Our love for beef comes from its scarcity.
The fish cuisine runs the gamut from raw, to broiled, to boiled, to braised, to battered (both batter-fried, and literally battered, for dried fish is pounded with a rolling pin to soften it), to dipped, fried, grilled, pickled, processed, reconstituted, salted, seared, simmered, and steamed.
If cooking fish is a demonstration of maternal love, eating fish is a demonstration of paternal love. My mother always used to give the fish heads to my father. I was envious of him for eating the "best" part. When I took charge of my own kitchen and tasted a fish head for the first time, I quickly learned that it was highly overrated. It was mainly weird, inedible bony stuff with little meat. It occurred to me only then that my father had always eaten the head so that my sisters and I could have large chunks of fish meat.
My sister and her boyfriend were in for a long haul. She had to do something about her cravings. So one day recently she pulled off an incredible coup: She cooked mackerel. With daikon and everything. When her beloved Jacques sniffed the culprit in the air as he walked into the apartment, he said, "What do you have against me?"
I live in a small town in Oklahoma. When I first moved here, I lived in a beautiful Victorian house on a large lot. My neighbor could have screamed murder. I would not have heard anything because houses are so far apart. There, I occasionally cooked mackerel with abandon. My daughter, who was exposed to it early, quickly acquired a taste for it.
Then last year I moved to a two-bedroom apartment in a complex where the parking lot turns into a mating ground for college students every night, complete with country-music karaoke at 3 a.m. I confess that I have called the police once, but otherwise I try to keep a low profile lest I bring back the Asian stereotype, marvelously depicted by a bespectacled and buck-toothed Mickey Rooney, who played Mr. Yunioshi in the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Mr. Yunioshi threatens to call the police whenever there is a party downstairs to which he has not been invited.
Not only am I the only person over 30 in my apartment complex, but I am also the only Asian from Asia. In food terms, I am the only person here who grew up without pizza. I don't dare cook mackerel now, although I have some in my freezer. Americans seem ultrasensitive to foreign smells. When I burned my rice a couple of weeks ago, I saw my neighbor stick her nose out her front door and sniff the air. I chose not to turn myself in.
This Saturday, I am inviting to my apartment more than 30 Japanese students from my English as a Second Language classes - the first massive foreign import to a town where the only source of exotic culinary ingredients is its local Wal-Mart. They will have to come in shifts, since my place is tiny.
They have been wanting to eat kimchi stew.
Kimchi has become popular in Japan in recent years. I am afraid, however, that I might not have enough kimchi to feed them all. I will have to supplement. Mackerel comes to mind. They will love it. Ha. The smell of kimchi and mackerel wafting across the parking lot.
Ask anyone who has ever been stationed in South Korea. They will agree that the olfactory offensiveness of these dishes reaches criminal height. Do I dare launch both industrial-strength stink bombs on the same day?
What's some olfactory "noise" compared with a stream of country-and-Western songs sung by a college karaoke troupe at 3 in the morning? Besides, I have always championed mackerel over sappy love songs. I am truly tempted.
Jacques sat down at the table and finished the whole mackerel with little help from my sister. Relieved, she asked him, "So, do you like fish now?"
"It's an acquired taste," he said, shaking his head.