I’m currently in Seoul, visiting my mother’s home country for the first time while working on a story for our November issue. Each day, I try to explore various versions of an iconic dish.
My day of mandu (dumplings) began in an artists’ area called Insadong at a tiny restaurant stall called Bukchon Mandu. There I tried pleated and round, ball-shaped mandu, both steamed and filled with tofu, green onions, and pork. The pleated dumplings were familiar to me, much like some I’ve had before in the U.S. The round ones were different, encased in the thinnest, most delicate dumpling skin. Another version was fried, the hot oil creating wonderful tiny blisters all over the dumpling skins—incredibly crispy and insanely delicious. We mixed our own dipping sauce at the table: soy sauce, red pepper powder, and black pepper.
From there, we walked around the corner to a place called Koong for a North-Korea take on mandu: big, fat dumplings cooked on the table in a cauldron of mild beef stock, clusters of tiny mushrooms, carrot planks, and a few chile slices. The flavors were wonderfully pure and comforting—very different from the more aggressively flavored dumplings we had earlier. Dinner that night at Jaha Son Mandu included a mandu and chewy rice ball soup with beautiful dumpling skins ofgreen and pink color (from spinach and beets), plus strongly flavored kimchi-pork dumplings.Three very different places, three wonderful dumpling experiences!