As you may know, I’ve been cooking a lot of Korean(ish) food in the past month, a process I’ve identified as a way to honor and remember my late grandmother. Though I’ve been cooking actively for the past seven years, I have successfully avoided making the food of my people, partially out of laziness (a lot of Korean food takes loads of time and preparation), and partially because I have been really afraid of making something “inauthentic.” With this cuisine specifically, I’ve conflated inauthenticity with half-assedness, and fear that I have only half an ass. I haven’t had time to go to H-Mart to get real ingredients. I don’t have packets of dried anchovies for broth. Tubs of hot pepper or dry soy bean paste scare me. I’m obsessed with kimchi, but wanted to wait until I had a separate fridge for this stinky and fermented treat. Plus, my experience with Korean food is so inextricably linked to my memories of my mother and my grandmother, I felt like making something in a new tradition would be dishonorable.
So, what is authentic Korean food? And, a larger and perhaps more difficult question, what would it mean to be authentically Korean? I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between the term/concept and tradition. As someone born in this country, I am pretty ambivalent about many aspects of Korea’s customs and conventions. How do I both remain respectful of its (rather sad) history and practices, and simultaneously reject the institutionalized patriarchy of its Neo-Confucian core? There are a lot of things I admire about my heritage (whatever that means). I like that respectfulness and honor is a priority in a person’s demeanor. I like that Koreans value hard work as much as they value intelligence or raw talent. I think there’s something rather beautiful about harboring a mentality that thinks more about collectivism than individualism. But what do I do, for example, with its long history of disenfranchising women? According to Confucian and Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, women had (and still arguably have) a primary duty of providing a male heir for her husband’s family (women were not incorporated into family trees, because men were born from magical unicorns), they were/are often mistreated and abused by her mother-in-law (for reference, please watch any and all Korean soap operas), and, if she could not bear a son, her husband could haved divorce his wife or taken a second wife. The nation even adopted and implemented its very own comfort women to serve members of the U.S. military in camp towns (called kijich’on). All this to say: the things that I admire about the culture are not totally unrelated to the things that make me cringe, rage, and cry.
In order to reconcile these feelings, I try to understand the history that led to an adoption of exclusionary and psychically violent practices. Sure, postcolonial nationalism is often wrought with dogmatism and stringent understandings of ‘manhood.’ Yes, intense poverty often informs cultural policies. At some point, the Koryo Dynasty was possibly matrilineal. I’ve done some work in investigating this context. But still, I remain ambivalent, saddened, angry, and confused.
So, to be authentically Korean, do I need to honor all these traditions, even if they dictate that I am unworthy of respect or power because I was born with a vagina, because I am not subservient, because I have both career and familial ambitions, because I am shameless and lack a demure personality? And, how far back do I need to go in order to find that ‘originary’ tradition? I am prone to thinking that this is a relatively futile etude. Or, is it possible to pick and choose what I like, and wear that mangled identity with pride and absolution?
Let’s bring this back to food. As I’ve stated, I’ve been afraid of making Korean food because I didn’t want to mess with tradition (and by tradition, I mean the way my grandmother and mother made certain dishes). But, if it’s okay to pick and choose what I like about being Korean, maybe it’s also okay for me to pick and choose how I cook the dishes of my people. No, maybe I won’t always use the proper ingredients, but that doesn’t have to stop me from making and eating something I love, from altering a recipe to fit my tastes, time, budget, and possible laziness. Somehow, my grandmother’s passing has instilled me with more courage. I know it sounds weird, but I have needed courage in order to cook Korean food without feeling shame, embarrassment, or competitiveness. And my halmuni’s love, life, and passing has given me enough energy to make this food without reservation.
Without further ado, here is a homemade mandu (Korean dumpling) recipe:
Recipe adapted from Maangchi (I love the recipes on this site – be sure to check it out!)
Prep time: 1 hour and 15 minutes (includes time to make homemade mandu skins)
Cooking time: 20 minutes
- 1 lb of ground pork
- 1 lb of ground beef
- 2 cups of chives, chopped
- 4 fresh shiitake mushrooms, diced
- Half an onion, finely minced
- Half a package of extra firm tofu, drained and smooshed
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 2 teaspoons of salt
- 1 teaspoon of black pepper
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons of sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons of soy sauce
- Mandu skins (see below for recipe)
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Place ground pork and ground beef into a big bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, mix by hand, and push onto one side of the bowl.
- In a small bowl, mix chives with 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and mix – place this next to the meat in the large bowl.
- Mix diced shiitake mushrooms onions into a small bowl. Add two teaspoons of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil in a small bowl. Mix by hand and put into the large bowl.
- Place the squished half package of tofu into small bowl, add a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil and mix by hand. Place tofu mixture into the large bowl.
- Add minced garlic, and mix all ingredients by hand.
- Take out your mandu skins. Put some filling mixture into the center of the mandu skin. Using your fingertips, apply a little bit of cold water to one edge of the round skin – this will serve as a sealant.
- Fold the skin in half over the filling and press edges together. Fold the edges over in order to make the ripple effect and to securely seal the dumpling. Do this with your desired number of dumplings.
- Put some vegetable oil on a medium heated pan (make sure you use a pan with a lid), and add the mandu. Lower the heat to a low-medium and put the lid on the pan to cook.
- After 3 minutes, turn the mandu over. After cooking for a total of 6 minutes, carefully add 2 tablespoons of water and put the lid back on – this will ensure that the filling is fully cooked. After 2-3 minutes, take the lid off (be careful – oil might be splattering!) and cook for one more minute until the liquid is completely evaporated.
- When mandu is golden and crispy, transfer onto a plate.
- 2 cups of all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- 2/3 cup of water
- In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, and water. Mix with a wooden spoon until it turns into one big lump. Knead the dough by hand for a few minutes until the dough gets a little bit softer. Put into a Ziploc bag and let it sit for 30 minutes.
- Take the dough out of the bag and knead for 5-7 minutes, until it is smooth, dense, and elastic.
- Place the dough on a cutting board dusted with a bit of flour and divide it into 2 equal pieces. Put half back into the Ziploc bag.
- Cut the piece of dough into 12-15 equal sized pieces. Roll them into balls, squish them with your palm, and start rolling each piece out with a pin. The disks should be a little thinner on the outside than in the middle so that you can pinch the edges without much trouble. Do the same with the second half of the dough. Use them for your mandu
I actually ended up having a significant amount of mandu filling left after I finished making them. So, I added 1 teaspoon of Worchestershire sauce, an egg, made meatballs, and baked them at 450 F for 20 minutes. DELICIOUS.
Next on The Problematization of “Authenticity” Series: (White) Cultural Appropriators, a Defense for “Authenticity,” and a Recipe for Shrimp and Grits.
Last thing: Our dog’s name is Mandu (because I love dumplings so much, not because I’m going to eat him). And he is the cutest thing in the world.