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Guest post: Korean mandu for an American kitchen

[one_half]THE EVOLUTION OF MANDU

[U]ntil my brother made me write this blog entry, I always made a long apology whenever I prepared Korean food. Depending on what I was serving, my apology would include some version of the following statements: It’s not the way my mom made it. Koreans usually don’t serve x with y. If my mom tasted this she’d smack me. This is definitely not authentic, but…. Naturally, I made similar statements in my early drafts. And my brother, who is by far my biggest fan and my strongest supporter, kept shooting my drafts back to me. Not sure it’s there. And, worse: Good start!

Bewildering, I thought. Why is this hard? Is it because I’ve never written about cooking? Have I lost my touch? If it weren’t Ben, I might have flaked on this assignment and quietly pretended my insecurities never came up. But it’s Ben. So I found myself, over the past several weeks—thinking more about mandu and more about how I think about mandu—than I ever have in my life.

See, when it comes to mandu, I know how it’s supposed to be done. I’ve seen my mom prepare a hundred or so every month ever since I can remember. She begins with a pound of beef tenderloin, which she chops finely with a meat cleaver. She seasons this with fresh garlic, black pepper, soy sauce and salt (because they both season meat differently). Next, she takes a hunk of handmade tofu (I think she used to make it herself when we were really little kids) and squeezes all the water out of it with a linen bag that she sewed up specifically for this purpose. (Cheesecloth doesn’t work.) She seasons the crumpled tofu with sesame oil and salt. She lets the tofu and the meat sit in separate bowls, absorbing seasonings at room temperature, while she approaches the vegetables. It’s a different vegetable every time because mom cooks seasonally, but my favorite mandu vegetable was always Korean squash from her garden. This she juliennes, salts, drains, and seasons. Then she chops a small handful of her own kimchee, which she’s always made with less salt (doesn’t last as long, but it tastes fresher), onions, ginger, and sweet shrimp. When the moment feels right to her, she mixes everything in a large bowl, binds it with one or two egg yolks, and then sits at the table to stuff the mandu.

When we were really really little, she made the dough for mandu too, by mixing flour, water and salt. I don’t remember this myself, but my dad, who prefers homemade dough, tells me about it repeatedly on mandu making days.

Mandu is the only dish that my mom ever bothered acting humble and polite about, because she knows flat out that she makes the best. I tried to follow the legacy, and throughout my adulthood, I fixed mandu all the time. Of course, I’d try some shortcuts. I hate dishwashing, so I’d try to season everything in the same bowl (why not? It all ends up in the same bowl anyway). I’d use store-bought kimchee. I always bought meat that was ground in the store. None of my shortcuts worked. My mandu tasted flat, watery, or muddy.

So I gave up and started trying to make mandu the way my mom did. I asked the Korean market to call me on tofu delivery days. I made sure my mom made kimchee for me whenever she came to visit. And when I finally thought I might be able to make it the way it was supposed to be done, I prepared mandu for my parents. That afternoon, the butcher handed me a package that he ground up himself right then and there. “That there’s tenderloin with some prime rib thrown in,” he said. “Your momma’s gonna love that.” I even made the dough, which made my dad sigh as he watched me flatten and stuff each little round. Mom ate my mandu with a completely neutral look in her eyes. “How is it? Is it the way it’s supposed to be done?” I asked. “Sure,” she said flatly. “Delicious.”

I was missing something, and it drove me crazy. Like so many foods I tried to replicate from our childhood, my mandu just wasn’t there. It was boring. It was an occupant on the table that added nothing to the meal. I had the right ratios of crunchy, savory, sweet, and salt. What did it lack? Whenever our church prepared a meal, cooks always asked my mom to taste and correct every dish before it was served. Like her mother before her, our mom was Chef to five neighborhoods. But when I asked her to test my mandu, she shrugged. “It’s good. It’s fine.”

So I sat down with my dad, the theorist. (It doesn’t make sense to talk to my mom about theories.) And together, we came up with a few mandu principles that seemed to be Pretty Good Truths.

  • Meat plus tofu. If you’re Korean, the meat is likely very lean, grass-fed beef. Tofu serves to moisten the texture of the beef, by softening it and adding a marrow-like consistency that ostensibly adds richness. By removing some of the water from the tofu, and seasoning it with sesame oil, tofu can mimic fat and gelatin.
  • Vegetables. If you’re my mother, the only reason to add vegetables is for Good Health. If you’re my father, you believe the vegetables are there to add texture, flavor, and color.
  • Kimchee. We’re Korean. That’s reason enough.
  • Mandu dough. Here’s where my mom and dad take surprising turns. Mom buys organic Nasoya wonton wraps from Safeway, or “good ones” from the Korean market. Same difference. Why? Because it’s easier, and it tastes great. My dad remembers handmade dough and just can’t get past its incomparable, light texture. He’s right. I’m sure I’ll start making this again when my children stop wanting to play with wasp nests and fire.

Here are the problems I had with these principles:

  • Meat plus tofu. As nice as my dad’s theory sounds, tofu just doesn’t replace marrow, fat or gelatin. And despite what everyone says, tofu has a strong soybean flavor, and it doesn’t, as some may assume, simply absorb the flavor of beef. It tends to take in initial flavors and retain them. It also has a high water content and a tendency to toughen into grainy crumbles when crushed and cooked at a higher temperature. If you mix tofu into ground beef in the same way that folks create meatloaf mixtures, what you get is a soggy mixture that retains the metallic tang of raw blood, even after it’s cooked.
    This is why my mom drained and seasoned the tofu separately, and tossed it gently into the beef, so that there were small lentil-sized pieces of beef mixed with small lentil-sized pieces of sesame oil-flavored creamy tofu. But even with gentle tossing, you still get some odd texture/flavor challenges.
  • Finely chopped (but not ground) vegetables and kimchee follow mom’s approach of preserving the integrity of individual flavors. I think this is a great principle, as long as the flavors work together to present a glorious whole. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of disparate stuff. I’ve tasted mandu made with various leftover stuff from the fridge, and this random approach, mixed with the raw blood problem above, can produce the impression of garbage.
  • Mandu dough. I could probably make time to make these, but right now in my life I know I don’t want to.

Given the above, this is what I did:

  • Ground chicken. Store-bought, hormone-free, vegetarian, free-range chicken that has been ground by your butcher offers the right texture, flavor and fat content. We use dark meat. (My BF makes mandu with ground pork, and that’s also fabulous.) The minute I went with a higher fat content meat with a naturally tender texture, I challenged the whole idea of individual nuggets of flavors, and went instead for what I perceived to be the ultimate goal of meat + tofu: richness, tenderness, subtler meat flavor. To shift away from ground meat’s tendency to get rubbery or bouncy, I also added a small amount of fine white breadcrumbs.
  • Good quality frozen spinach. There are a lot of situations where fresh blanched spinach is so superior to frozen spinach leaves that it’s appropriate to sneer when frozen is suggested. This is not one of them. I chose spinach because there is something lovely that happens when wilted spinach leaves are entangled in the golden, garlicky chicken. Kind of the same way that there is something lovely between pork and caramelized cabbage. Another bonus is that the frozen leaves won’t go bad if I decide on too many last minute tickle fights or soccer games.
  • No kimchee. I know: freaky. I know this means I might get my Korean card taken away, but there you have it. I like kimchee when it’s stewed, and I like it fresh. I’m just not crazy about it when it’s lightly steamed inside a nugget of meat. To me, that bright, spicey, tart flavor just kind of goes limp and sour in there. (So how did my mom do it so well? I don’t know. Possibly magic.)
  • Yangnyum soy sauce. Yangnyum, usually used as a dipping sauce, creates deeper flavor in meat that is essentially just steamed. Yangnyum cuts the grittiness of spinach, brings out the round savory capability of chicken, and supports the caramelizing of the mandu.
  • Mandu skins. See above.

And from all this thinking and rewriting arose some personal discoveries:

  • Be the mandu. Mom makes amazing mandu, and trying to achieve greatness in mandu is a worthy journey. But maybe trying to exactly replicate her inimitable style doesn’t make sense. Whatever happens in her kitchen, with her tools, and her magical touch is as particular as her thumbprint. Maybe knowing how mandu is supposed to be done is going to come down to how I apprehend, understand, and interpret the mandu I was brought up knowing. I don’t have a sunny, cement-walled backyard where Korean squash and shepherd’s purse grow rampant with sharp, sweet green onions. I don’t use the same warped wooden cutting board, or make the same musical cutting sounds with my knife. Maybe that’s why mom treats me like I’m stupid every time I tried to make them exactly the way she does. It’s her way of pushing me out into the culinary world and saying, Take what you know … and then go get ‘em honey.
  • Deliciousness can come at any price. Or rather, as my brother quoted from Momofoku, “… deliciousness by any means.” Ground chicken and frozen spinach are lowly ingredients, and it feels somehow unglamorous not to be using something exotic or difficult. But put them together, seasoned properly, in mandu, and something glorious happens. Browned in a pan, they come out golden, rich, complex, and full of umami. I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t try to eat at least of dozen of these in one sitting. Have I tried making them with lobster or oyster mushrooms, or chestnuts? Yes. Are they as delicious as the chicken ones? No.
  • Time is an issue. Like my brother, I have never been afraid of taking time to make good food. Make my own condiments? Drive across town for a single ingredient? Practice pulling noodles by hand? All good things that I have done and loved. But once children came into my life, cooking moved to occupy a lesser portion of my daily life. So, also like my brother, I focused on creating uncomplicated dishes efficiently and well. With this approach to mandu, I can make 50 yummy mandu in about 20 minutes. That’s important to me.

So what does this all mean? Well after having written this blog several times over, I think the bottom line is that mandu—like all dishes—is supposed to move gracefully through time and generations. (I say gracefully because as open as I try to be, there are still ingredients that I feel might take mandu to a bad place, like cheese spread or ketchup.) Edification can be a form of cherishing, but it can also restrict natural evolutions that take place from kitchen to kitchen. So no more apologies. Right?

Right. Still, the real test came when my parents were visiting us, and we found ourselves having to slap together a fast meal. Mom foraged around and found a bag of my quickie rogue chicken mandu in my freezer. Despite myself, I had a quiet anxiety attack. She’s going to know I cheated. She’s going to think I’m an unfit mother because I can’t make mandu the real way while still keeping my children safe and engaged in fun algebra exercises. Instead, for the first time in my life, my supertaster, critical, talented mom gave me unqualified praise. “WOW delicious!” she exclaimed, totally surprised. “Tell me how you made this! Write it down! I want to make that for Esme!”

* * * * *

HOW I MADE THAT MANDU
(according to my BF Leeann, who watched me, and then wrote it down for me, and my 6-year-old daughter Jinju, who took the above picture)

Mandu (Korean dumplings)
1 T dark brown sugar
1 tsp fresh crushed garlic (I use a mortar and pestle)
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 C finely minced scallions, sautéed until bright and fragrant, cooled to room temperature
1/2 tsp fresh ginger juice
2 T toasted sesame oil
1/5 C (scant) soy sauce
1 extra large egg, separated
5 oz frozen, good quality spinach leaves, thawed, lightly drained (don’t squeeze it so much that all you have left is fiber)
plain, fine white breadcrumbs
1 lb ground chicken
1 package wonton or gyoza wrappers
olive oil or grapeseed oil*
water

Yangnyum dipping sauce
1 T dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 T minced scallions
2 T toasted sesame oil
1 T ground, toasted sesame seeds
1/4 C soy sauce

*My mom and I use these two oils for Korean cooking. Mom never uses canola or soybean oils because she thinks they taste nasty (I think they are fine). I never add sesame oil to my cooking oil because I think that intense, direct heat adversely changes the flavor (Mom thinks I’m crazy to think so). Olive oil adds a lovely richness to Korean cooking. Grapeseed oil preserves clarity. Those two we agree on.

In a medium bowl, thoroughly mix the first 6 ingredients. Mix in the ground meat and spinach. Add egg yolk to bind, and mix (reserving egg white in a separate bowl). As my BF puts it: add bread crumbs until moisture is something you can only sense (and hear) in the mixture rather than see.

The wonton wrapper will have one side that looks more floured than the other. Drape half of the wonton wrapper across the top of the egg white so that only half of the floured side is moistened. Place about a teaspoon and a half of the filling mixture in the center of the wonton wrapper on the moistened side. Fold wrapper in half over the mixture. Seal the edges and gently flatten the filling to press out air bubbles and allow for more even cooking. It takes a little practice to figure out the proper amount of filling to use, but once you do, the assembly moves fairly quickly. I usually place the assembled mandu on a large piece of waxed paper. Repeat until filling mixture is gone. Makes about 50.

At this point, you can freeze them, on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper, as long as the mandu are not touching each other and the skins are not too damp (if you find yourself making damp ones, just sprinkle cornstarch on the wax paper). After they are frozen solid, you can store them in a large zippered bag until you’re ready to cook. Never defrost frozen mandu. Simply follow the directions below, which are the same for fresh or frozen.

To make yaki mandu (potsticker style) heat about 2 T of oil over medium heat in a nonstick frying pan. Place mandu in the frying pan (leaving enough space between them so they can breathe, which means you will have to cook them in batches). When the mandu starts making a tchka tchka tchka sound, add a few tablespoons to 1/4 C of water to the pan and cover until the top of the mandu are steamed through, slightly translucent and wrinkly. The filling should feel firm to the touch. Bottoms should be golden brown. Transfer to serving plate, and repeat until all are cooked. Serve with dipping sauce.

These are also yummy in soup. Bring homemade stock or broth to a light boil, and season soup with salt, black pepper, and a pinch of freshly crushed garlic. Cook mandu until they float up to the top, and then finish with minced scallions and a few dots of sesame oil. Warm until the scallions are bright green and the sesame oil is fragrant.

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open mandu with filling

closing mandu

uncooked mandu on cutting board

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