I grew up attending many after school programs in Korea, which kept me out and about until midnight pretty frequently. Korean education system is unreasonably competitive, and most everyone takes after school programs to get ahead of whatever you are learning in school. It is silly. When I was in 5th grade, I was in after school program learning what I would learn in 6th grade. So when I got to 6th grade, I was learning what I would learn in 7th grade in after school program. All this is so that you have a year or two to just focus on studying for what’s equivalent to the SATs in Korea, which you are only allowed to take once a year. That score meant everything- which school you go to, which major you can choose. Nothing was up for debate and that score determined your fate.
After school programs were actually not too bad when it was with my friends. I lived in Seoul, which is as urban as New York City, and my friends and I walked about a half an hour after the class back home. We would hold hands, swing them around, and sing like we were drunk. The most fun part was getting snacks on the way home.
There were food trucks everywhere with fish cakes with fish broth, spicy rice cakes, and fried stuff, like calamari, sausage, potatoes. All of them were good, but I loved fish cake. These fish cakes are either in a form of balls or thin rectangle, and are served on a stick like a kebab. At the food trucks, they are served with a cup of fish broth, but if you are at a restaurant, you can get a bowl of fish cake with broth. The fish cakes are salty and savory. The fish flesh is mixed with vegetables like carrots and scallions, and the cakes are firm and resists my teeth as I bite into them. No Korean I know make the fish cakes at home any more, and they are sold frozen or fresh at the super market.
Fish cake as it exists now was introduced to Korea by the Japanese during its colonization. The oldest known fish cakes on a stick appeared in the 1400s in Japan. The fish cakes were made with ground up white fish, flour, eggs, and salt and sugar. Even now, Japanese fish cakes often have sweetness to it. The origin of something like fish cake in Asia dates back to 3 BC, the time of Qin Shi Huang Di who unified China for the first time. He loved fish, but hated the bones, so chefs were required to get rid of the bones before serving fish up to Qin Shi Huang Di. If any bones were found, the chefs were punished, even killed. One of the chef invented fish cake, and Qin Shi Huang Di liked the taste of it, and this is where fish cakes came from.
When Aaron first told me about this awful Gefilte fish that he doesn’t like but has to eat over passover, he was petrified. Aaron promised that he would only let me eat ones made by his mom, made with salmon, and apologized profusely for having to ask me to eat it. My ears perked up. Oh fish cake! I love fish cake! Aaron was in disbelief.
Gafilte means “stuffed” in Yiddish. When Gailte fish was fist made in Eastern Europe, the flesh of the fish was ground up and mixed with spices and vegetables, then stuffed back into the skin before being baked. Over time, the process of stuffing the fish back was omitted and now the fish balls are baked or boiled on its own, then served with horseradish. However, this is not the only kind of Gefilte fish there is. Gefilte fish was also served sweet, especially in Poland, and NYC institution Russ & Daughters also started out serving it sweet. But taste changes with time, and most Jews in the US think of Gafilte fish as savory, not sweet. According to Tablet Magazine, fish balls in Sephardic tradition have always been served warm, with tasty sauce. In Tunisia and Libya, fish balls were served warm in tangy tomato sauce, whereas in Morocco, it is served in a saffron-infused broth and then topped with a tangy lemon sauce thickened with egg yolk. All of these fish balls sound flat out divine.
That passover when I went over to Aaron’s parents’ house I was all excited about the Gafilte fish, but what I didn’t know was that Gefilte fish was served cold. I love horseradish and the combination was curiously refreshing, but I have more than once warmed up Gefilte fish in microwave before putting on my horseradish!