In my family, the equivalent to "when I was young, I walked to school through three feet of snow .. uphill — both ways!" is the distance it used to take to buy cilantro (though we call it dhanya).
If you've ever cooked Indian food, you know how essential this herb is, and when my parents first moved to our small city in the very late 1970s, they had to drive 45 minutes to a larger city to buy it. Not from a supermarket, but from an Indian grocery that was long and narrow, with four rows of shelves forming two aisles, stacked to the ceiling. There my parents would get on burlap sacks of rice and bags of atta (a type of flour) that came up to my childhood-height waist, vegetables like okra and bitter gourd, spices and dried lentils of all colours. Sometimes they'd come home with samosas, a plastic-wrapped tray of neon jalebi or a mixed box of halwa, luddu, gulab jamun and other sweets.
These dumplings, kimchi-and-tofu filled mandu, aren't Indian, instead Korean (the kimchi might have been a giveaway), but I was reminded of those grocery trips when I was shopping for ingredients at one of the Asian markets in town. (The chain groceries here are now much more comprehensive, but I still go to the smaller shops when I can.)
My husband taught English in Korea, and the foods he misses most are barbecue, "special toast" (Gaeran toast) and vegetarian mandu. The latter two refer specifically to those made by a woman who ran a stall on his block. The toast was her unique combination of cabbage, cheese, egg and ketchup, sandwiched between bread and fried in butter, and while I've tried to pin down an approximation, I've never come close. The mandu was special, too. Many mandu will have ground pork or beef, often with mung bean sprouts and kimchi. This lady made hers with bean thread noodles, no kimchi, and were served crisp, dunked into a fiery soy-based sauce.
Since I've failed with the toast, I thought I would take a different tack for the dumplings; aiming instead for mandu that were similar, but different enough to save from comparison.
In went kimchi. (I love kimchi.)
That kimchi, hot and nose-pricklingly perfect as it is, tinges everything else in my chosen filling — the aforementioned bean noodles, some enoki, crumbled tofu curd, green onion and garlic —- an unfortunate pink hue.
I'll be the first to say it, the filling doesn't look like much in the bowl. Give it a chance.These mandu are entirely about texture, not looks, plus the stuffing gets folded up and crimped in a cover, anyway.
Steamed or boiled, the dumpling wrapper has a bland, rubbery chew that gives way to an unexpected lightness within. The slick crunch of the kimchi and aromatic sting of the onion is mitigated by the spongy nubs of mushroom, while the tofu, wrung out of its moisture and mashed, is mild and balancing. The vermicelli is smooth and delicate, and the sesame oil adds a subtle, thrumming richness that runs through everything else. When fried, the contrast between exterior and interior is even more apparent.
The Asian market I went to the other day was just opening; one of the ladies who runs the shop was still pulling off the newspapers they use to cover the refrigerator cases at night. Below the dumpling wrappers there were trays of quail eggs, which were too cute to pass by. What's more, the combination of salt and chili and yolk isn't one to pass up either.
What I did pass up was a small rectangular tin, in between the boxes of Pocky and bottles of Kewpie mayo, shining blue and brass in an intricate pattern and the impressive label of Gourmet Powder. At the register I found out it was MSG. Still, I'm tempted to make another trip to pick it up, for the packaging alone.
After all, it's only 10 minutes away.
KIMCHI TOFU MANDU (Korean dumplings)
My own recipe. Vegan, though the eggs to serve are certainly not. Easily adapted for those who prefer gluten-free, in which case please see link below for homemade wrappers.
FOR THE DUMPLINGS (makes about 65)
- 12 1/2 ounces / 350 g firm tofu
- 8 ounces / 225 g cabbage kimchi
- 3 1/2 ounces / 100 g bean thread noodles, prepared as per package
- 3 1/2 ounces / 100 g enoki mushrooms, trimmed and blanched for 30 seconds
- A small bunch green onions, minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons tamari or soy sauce
- 1 pound round dumpling wrappers, conventional or gluten-free (link to recipe)
TO SERVE (enough for approximately 32, serving 4 to 6)
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml tamari or soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon natural cane or golden brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- A good pinch gochugaru (Korean hot pepper flakes), optional
- Pea shoots
- Soft-boiled eggs, optional
Pat the tofu dry. If it still feels wet, wrap in a clean, lint-free tea towel and place a cutting board on top to press out water. Let stand for a few minutes. In a large bowl, mash the tofu with the back of a fork. Squeeze excess liquid from kimchi, chop finely, and add to the bowl. Do the same with the noodles and mushrooms, and stir into the tofu kimchi mixture, along with the green onions, garlic, sesame oil and tamari. Taste for seasoning, adding more oil or tamari as needed; the mixture should be quite dry. If you have time, cover and refrigerate for an hour or so to let the flavours develop.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly dust with cornstarch. Lay a few dumpling wrappers out on a work surface, and cover the rest with a damp, lint-free tea towel to keep from drying. Place about a teaspoon of filling in the centre of each of the arranged wrappers, then use fingers or a brush dampen the edges with a bit of water. I find it easiest to lay each filled (but open) wrapper across my palm, forming the dumpling between my hands, that might not be the case for everyone. In hand or on the counter, fold each dumpling in half, pushing out all the air and pressing the edges together to seal. Wet the corners and bend inwards to bring them together, overlapping slightly. Pinch gently to secure. Place on the prepared sheet and cover with another piece of parchment. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling.
If not cooking right away, freeze the mandu on the baking sheet, making sure to leave some room in between. Once firm, transfer to an airtight container for storage.
To cook, steam, boil in water or broth to make soup, sauté, shallow fry, or fry/steam for potstickers. (For specifics on potsticker technique, Heidi has instructions.) Since there is no raw meat involved, the filling simply needs to be warmed through and the wrappers cooked and tender, which should take only a few minutes.
When ready to serve make a sauce by combing tamari, water, rice vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds and gochugaru in a bowl. Arrange cooked mandu on a serving plate, surrounded by pea shoots or other greens, and eggs, if using. Drizzle with some of the sauce and divide the rest among smalls bowls for dipping.
A completely unrelated p.s. — Nikole wrote about a ice cream cake I made for a story we did with Michael for Kinfolk magazine last year. If you're interested in the mint-and-vanilla details, be sure to check it out.