COMFORT FOODS // Dissecting the Heart of Mandu – J.A. Pak

Mandu that I made and froze, ready to be boiled. These contain my family’s filling.

Dissecting the Heart of Mandu

The Chinese, Mongolians, Japanese, and now the Americans and Europeans are in my food, but are the Turkic nomads there as well? Intriguing and exciting.

A mandu (만두) is a Korean dumpling. A savory dumpling with a filling of meat. It’s usually boiled but it can also be steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried. I’d always thought the mandu’s provenance was the Chinese jiaozi. Like it is for the Japanese gyoza. Jiaozi and mandu are very similar. The only real difference is the protein filling. While both contain minced vegetables of some kind, the meat filling in mandu is primarily ground beef lightened with mashed tofu and chopped sweet potato noodles. The jiaozi filling is mainly meat: pork, mutton or shrimp—sometimes fish, often a mixture of different kinds of meat, pork and shrimp the classic combination.

The Turkic manti have a meat filling too, spiced. Mandu and jiaozi are shaped like half-moons. Manti look more like small money bags. And while mandu and jiaozi are eaten with a soy and/or vinegar sauce, manti are eaten with garlicky yogurt, a wonderful combination. History whispers that Turkic horsemen carried dried manti in their saddlebags. The manti were their viral gifts to the Armenians & Mongols. It was the Mongols who brought manti to Korea (they say). ‘Ti’ becomes ‘Du’. Money bags become half-moons. Survival food transforms into celebration.

(Confession: I have never eaten manti. But I have made and eaten Lebanese shish barak, which have a spiced meat filling hidden inside crispy filo. This you eat topped with garlicky yogurt sauce. When I imagine eating manti, I’m really eating shish barak. And now, I feel the need to make shish barak for dinner.)

Cylindrical manti in the Balkans. These do not have a filling and will be baked in a garlic yogurt sauce.

Mandu was once royal court food. Meat and refined flours were too dear for anyone but the royal family. Even now, mandu are time-consuming to make. More so during those dark ages when factory-made mandu wrappers weren’t available in the refrigerated section of every local supermarket, even in the U.S., where they’re known as wonton wrappers. When my parents were little, mandu were only served during Chuseok, the great autumn harvest festival. Flour and water had to be expertly mixed, kneaded, rolled out, shaped. Meat and vegetables had to be hand chopped. Before chopping, the vegetables had to be salted and all the water squeezed out. It was an all-day event for the females of the household. Little girls were told that how they shaped their mandu would determine how pretty their future daughters would be. Sympathetic magic ruled the Korean dining table. Eating fish would make you smart. Eating long soy bean sprouts would make you tall. As a child, I believed in all of this. None of it came true, but folklore/superstition is still my daily junk food.

I always think of mandu as fun food. Mandu is at raucous parties where women laugh. They sing and dance while we children dip our mandu in sauce. Dipping food is the ultimate fun. Of course, the best mandu are the ones you can eat without sauce, so full of piquant flavors you can’t stop eating even when your belly is about to burst. I think of my paternal grandmother’s mandu—for years I’ve tried to recall their flavor and whenever I make them, I try to channel her spirit, mimic the taste of her hands. In Korea, they say food cannot be made well without the love in a mother’s hands. Surely, a grandmother’s hands make food doubly delicious, even if channeled.

What was my grandmother’s secret? The copious amount of garlic, I think. And the hint of sesame oil. In my family, maternal and paternal, the basic recipe for mandu consistently includes beef, tofu, zucchini, sweet potato noodles, green onions, garlic, salt, pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil. In my kitchen, I add love, gratitude, memory. The exact amounts? Measurement is the feel of the moment. Measurement is motivation, heart, the quality of ingredients, my diners, my needs, nostalgia, homesickness, that kind of homesickness for a past that nearly existed and perhaps still does inside the disturbance of air sitting on a pair of imaginary butterfly wings.

There are other histories, other claims, but I choose this one.

If this has inspired you to try making mandu for the first time, I recommend starting out with this recipe from Maangchi. If you click on the recipe link, you’ll go to a website that even features a video which will guide you step by step. Keep in mind, most dumpling recipes are merely guides, suggestions. Feel free to substitute one vegetable for another. Or if you don’t like mushrooms, don’t put them in. You can even make a completely vegetarian mandu. Just make sure you squeeze as much water out as possible from any vegetable you use. When making dumpling fillings, water is your enemy, fat is your friend. You know what? I’m going to throw in another link. Here’s a mandu recipe from one of my favorite food blogs, Korean Bapsang. By comparing the two recipes, you can see how free and easy mandu really is. Mandu, like a really great friend, is extremely forgiving. And so very more-ish.

J.A. Pak likes to eat more than her stomach likes to digest. She thinks about food 80% of the time. Which is why food slips into almost everything she writes. She wrote about her mother, oden and korroke for Entropy. More of her work can be read at Triple Eight Palace of Dreams & Happiness.

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