Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Who doesn't love something tasty wrapped in dough?
It gives me a warm feeling to think about how so many cultures love to eat foods wrapped in dough. Pierogies, dumplings, wontons, empanadas—the list goes on and on. In Korea, our national dough-wrapped food is 만두, or mandoo. The most traditional version involves a thick doughy skin, more like a pierogi than a wonton, with a filling of mainly crumbled tofu, lots of green onions, perhaps some bean sprouts and/or kimchi, and a bit of meat. We like to eat them bobbing in soup, sometimes with sliced ovals of 떡, dduk, or rice cake. They are as comforting as all foods that are doughy and warm.
One of my favorite places to eat mandoo in Seoul is called, simply enough, 만두집, Mandoo Jip, or Mandoo House, a tiny little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Apkujongdong. Apkujongdong is probably Seoul’s most chichi neighborhood, full of cafes serving 10,000 won (over $10) coffees, bars serving even more expensive drinks, and hip restaurants for ladies who lunch. It’s wedged into a little shed-like building that is itself wedged into an alley right next to the new Uniqlo, which occupies the space where McDonald’s used to be, right across from the glossy Galleria Department Store. It would look like a little bewildered thing, surprised by what’s sprung up around it, except that it has spruced itself up a bit lately so that everything is shiny and new.
For 7,000 won, you get cabbage kimchi, a refreshingly spicy and slightly raw julienned radish, and a big steaming bowl of fat mandoo. It’s all very bare-bones—there’s nothing in the beef-broth soup than a sprinkling of Korean red pepper powder that gives it a heartening bite.
Such a fat little bundle that has been boiled in beef broth is likely to be scalding hot, and so you are supposed to take one mandoo out of the soup, place it in the little side dish provided for you, and cut it with your spoon into pieces, adding a bit of scallion-spiked soy sauce with each bite. The dough here achieves that perfect, difficult balance, thick but not starchy, satisfying rather than stupefying. The chopped green onions in the filling are not just a side note, they take up a lot of room, adding a clean, green sharpness to the crumbled tofu. The filling is seasoned so well, you only need a dab of soy sauce to make it complete.
This is the kind of Korean food I miss the most when I am in New York, a small restaurant making one thing so well, it becomes a minor masterpiece.