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All Stuffed Doughs Lead to Mandu

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For Olivia Won, stuffed pasta tell the tale of making mandu with her grandmother.  (Olivia Won / KQED)

Growing up, making mandu (Korean dumplings) with my halmoni (grandmother) was the most sacred kitchen ritual. Once or twice a year, the process would begin with her chopping up towering piles of Napa cabbage, onions and re-hydrated shiitake mushrooms.

Donning plastic kitchen gloves, she would then mixed the pounds and pounds of filling and I, her dutiful sous-chef, waited to pour extra soy sauce or sesame oil into her waiting cupped hands. For the assembly, my aunts and cousins would gather around the kitchen table, placing spoonfuls of filling in the center of circular wrappers and delicately enclosing the dumplings with imperfect folds. The hours of labor were rewarded with plates and plates of golden, pan-fried mandu, as well as filled freezer bags for us to ration until the next time halmoni came to visit.

Mandu are Korean dumplings that are typically pan-fried. (Olivia Won / KQED)

These days, I’ve been chasing kitchen projects that I would have previously dismissed as too laborious or time-consuming to stave off idle quarantine hands. One day led me to handmade mezzalunas. With some elbow grease, a flour well filled with egg yolks was transformed into thin sheets of silken yellow dough. I gently folded the pasta over dollops of ricotta and cut out the painfully-cute, half-moon stuffed pasta, boiling some for dinner and freezing the rest for future meals. As I made these Italian dumplings, I found myself longing for my halmoni, who is currently quarantined in Los Angeles. I missed the companionable silence shared in the kitchen, the quiet joy of observing the culinary techniques that she had inherited from her mother, the sound of her laughter at my silly questions. 

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To quell this brimming heartache, I impulsively embarked on my first solo mandu-making project. With random stuff in my fridge, an unorthodox filling was born: chopped white kimchi, blanched Chinese broccoli, maitake mushrooms, windowsill scallions, and old-ish tofu seasoned with sesame oil, fish sauce and my halmoni’s homemade extra funky soy sauce, all held together with egg as a binder. I defrosted mandu skins and, guided by @hellolisalin’s tutorials, spent the afternoon practicing my folding technique on each precious parcel. Once fried, I promptly ate an entire plate. With each step of the process, I had felt my halmoni’s presence all around me, like a spell: I found my hands imitating hers and my mind circulating warm memories of time spent with her. For a precious moment, I was satiated. 


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