Living on opposite coasts with our respective families, my brother and I don’t get to celebrate Thanksgiving together very often. Our last Thanksgiving together happened three years ago during a vacation we took together in Korea. It was leisurely, elaborate and joyful capped by the memory of my then two year old niece stuffing her face with a mound of buttery mashed potato while ignoring the rest of the mouth watering spread before her. This year’s meal was rushed, squeezed in during a two hour layover at SFO, not nearly as grand, and happened the day before Thanksgiving, but I am so thankful for the pancakes and shrimp dumplings that I got to share with my big brother yesterday. Happy Thanksgiving!
In celebration of the New Year, I decided to make some mandu (aka mandoo or Korean dumplings) – only to walk into the Asian supermarket and find too many brands of dumpling wrappers. Not knowing anything about the different brands, I picked three to test:
1) New Hong Kong Noodle Company Pot Sticker Wraps: 34 wrappers in the package, each 3.65 inches in diameter. These wrappers were obviously thicker than the other two. They held their shape fairly well as they were stuffed, unlike the other two, which were more prone to ripping.
2) Gyoza Skins: 46 wrappers in the package, each approximately 3.4 inches in diameter. These wrappers were very thin, and I had to take care not to rip them.
3) Assi Brand “찹쌀” Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper: About 24 wrappers per package, each 4 inches in diameter. In Korean, 찹쌀 is glutinous rice. Would this “special ingredient” affect the texture and flavor of the wrappers? I was eager to find out. While making the dumplings, I found these to be a bit too big and more unwieldy than the other two.
I thought that the best way to test the wrappers would be to cook them using three common methods: steaming, pan-frying and boiling.
I love steamed dumplings – unadulterated by oil or by too much water. I couldn’t tell if the Pot Sticker Wraps and Gyoza Skins were completely cooked through because their edges remained opaque and white. However, the durable Pot Sticker Wraps resisted sticking to the steamer while the other two didn’t resist, stuck to the steamer and ripped when they were taken out. In terms of taste, the Pot Sticker Wraps were tough and hard, while the other two, despite the tears, were soft and moist. Taste trumped presentation. Round 1 winner: Gyoza Skins (they held together better than the Jumbo Dumplings).
That I love steamed dumplings doesn’t mean that I don’t also love the crispy yumminess of pan-fried dumplings! And perhaps there’s nothing that a tablespoon of canola oil can’t improve as all three wrappers were tasty. But the Pot Sticker Wraps remained tough, while the Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper mandus looked (crispy and translucent) and tasted delicious. Winners: It’s a tie! Gyoza Skin and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper.
For me, the mandus pictured above seem lonely bobbing around in broth without the chewy company of rice cakes (tteok). But I shouldn’t complain as they still tasted good. The Pot Sticker Wraps got points for consistency: that is, in all three trials, they remained tough and chewy. The Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper tasted a bit too flour-y and it was so loose that the stuffing seemed to get lost inside. The Gyoza Skins, on the other hand, were perfect: slippery, noodle-like in texture, vacuum-packing and becoming one with the stuffing. Winner: Gyoza Skins.
This post is by no means a definitive mandu wrapper tasting and testing, but hopefully, it is a good start. My winner that day were the Gyoza Skins, but I vacillated a lot between them and the Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper. Did the glutinous rice make a difference at the end? Not for me. People who like chewy and tough will certainly prefer the Pot Sticker Wraps.
It wasn’t my original intention to taste three sojus from Jinro (the first half of the lineup) and three from Lotte Liquor (the second half of the lineup), the two largest Korean soju producers. I was just looking for different soju labels for sale at my local Korean market in Oakland, and those were the ones I found (all 375 mLs and $3.99 except for Jinro 24 ($4.79) and Saan Soju ($1.99)).
To be honest, I had a difficult time picking up any differences among the six labels. They all carried a kick from high alcohol content and were vaguely sweet. Literally blindfolded, there were only a few distinguishing qualities that I could tease out from each glass.
The first: the appropriately named JINRO 24 (24% v/v alc.) was recognizably hotter than the others. Coarse and rough, if forced to identify a masculine soju in this bunch (I know, how can a beverage be feminine or masculine? – but I can’t help it, I picked up this habit while describing wine), this one would be it. According to the label, it is “made with grain neutral spirits, sugar and citric acid.”
Distilled from 60% grain, 20% sweet potato, and 20% tapioca and “spirits”, CHAMISUL ORIGINAL (20.1% v/v alc.) was my favorite. It just tasted fresh and even. In comparison, CHAMISUL FRESH (19.5% v/v alc.) felt ever so slightly flat. On Jinro’s website, they claim to add a “natural sweetener from Finland” to the FRESH version – wonder what that sweetener is? The contents label for FRESH was more ambiguous with “neutral spirits and spirits distilled from 50% rice and 50% barley”. To me, the ORIGINAL was more fresh than the FRESH.
The sweet potato-based SAAN SOJU (21% v/v alc) had some green tea extract added to it (according to the label) though none was perceived (by color, taste or smell).
And finally, the CHUM-CHURUM with the plainly worded label (20% v/v alc.) was indistinguishable from the CHUM-CHURUM “Feel~! so Cool” with the flirty girl dominating the bottle (19.5% v/v alc.) despite the 0.5% v/v difference in alcohol. They’re both made from sweet potatoes with sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
Since only two companies were covered here, this is only the beginning. I’d love to compare other popular brands to those tasted today in addition to hopefully finding here in the U.S., soju made by smaller, lesser known companies.
It certainly wasn’t love at first taste – I wholeheartedly agreed with Grace back in February when she wrote about the “muddy” non-deliciousness of cheonggukjang jjigae. But last week, my friend introduced me to a version so wonderful and delicious that I want to bring everybody I love back to enjoy it with me.
Unobtrusively located in a small back alley near Anguk Station, the restaurant (Byeolgoong Shikdang) has about six items on their menu. For 7,000 KRW (slightly more than $6) each, my friend and I ordered the most perfect stew. Their cheonggukjang jjigae is the right balance of nutty, salty and creamy with some chewiness from enoki mushrooms and softness from the fermented beans. The accompanying rice and sides similarly so pure and tasty that my friend and I ended up eating too much, waddling out of the restaurant but with no regrets.
On a different note, I don’t know if seaweed (김) counts as a side dish, but in this case, I’ll count it because it was a notable highlight among the sides. Their roasted unadorned seaweed has a sweetness that made me stuff sheet after sheet into my mouth. It is so good that the seaweed with some rice and some soy sauce for dipping would be a lazy, but simple, complete and happy meal on itself.
Byeolgoong Shikdang (별궁식당)
Near Anguk Station (Line 3), Seoul, Korea
Tel. (02) 736-2176
My friends and I could remember neither the name nor the exact location of the restaurant, but we climbed into a taxi anyway and asked the driver to take us to “that place that’s famous for their sujaebi close to the Kyongbok Palace”. He knew exactly where to take us and a short 20 minutes later, we were happily slurping on our steaming bowls of sujaebi.
Sujaebi is a lot like kalguksu except the noodles are not knife-cut. Instead, pieces of dough are flattened and torn off by hand. The version at Samcheongdong Sujaebi was hearty and refreshing – the noodles so smooth though that I wondered if they had indeed been torn by hand. Regardless, the noodles were comforting, the clams in the soup added a nice chewiness and the half-moon pieces of squash made me feel virtuous and healthy.
Samcheongdong 102, Jongro-gu, Seoul
Tel: (02) 735-2965
Operating Hours: 11:30AM- 9:00PM
I can’t stop thinking of banana milk when I drink dongdongju (동동주). Maybe it’s because of the consistency, its ever-so-slightly viscous texture. Or maybe it’s because of the (imagined?) hints of artificial banana extract in both aroma and flavor. It’s probably not the alcohol. Whatever it is, this spritzy cloudy rice wine makes me happy, whether it comes flavored with deodeok (더덕) as it did at the soondubu (순두부) house last night or with omija (오미자) this afternoon at the pajun (파전) house.
My smarty pants boyfriend likes to tease me about my tendency to put a number to arbitrary measures. For example, these days, I am 60% sure that we are picking the right restaurant that best represents the region we are visiting. He’s going to be green with jealousy that I’m able to use this skill again as the omija flavored version [pictured above] this afternoon was three times as good as the deodeok version even though I was unable to recognize all five flavors that you’re supposed to get from this red berry. The whereabouts of “salty” and “spicy” remain a mystery, but I’m happy to report that “sweet”, “sour” and “bitter” flavors brightened up the dongdongju. This pretty pink rice wine was smooth.
The deodeok-infused dongdongju, on the other hand, made me feel more virtuous for recognizing this traditional root that I prefer as a crunchy side dish marinated in soy sauce and red chili paste rather than relegated as a mere flavor enhancer in my drink. This brotherly version to this afternoon’s feminine omija dongdongju was slightly more cloying and less balanced, but was nonetheless fun and fitting company to food full of character and spice despite being three times less good.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last six months talking to anyone who will talk to me about Korean food and cooking. Somewhat introverted, I’ll be honest that this hasn’t been the easiest journey, though mostly, it’s been tons of fun. We’ve met some great people who have been very generous with their time and eager to take us out to meals so that we would have an opportunity to eat and taste Korean dishes that we otherwise would not have a chance to eat.
But on Thursday, I was stunned and ecstatic (danced a little jig in my head!) when an already generous lunch at Poom (품), a modern Korean restaurant located at the base of Namsan (남산), was accompanied by the elusive king of Champagne.
This hedonistic pleasure of a 1996 Krug was golden-colored and wonderfully complex. It began with lightly toasted smoky notes but melted into vigorous citrus-y freshness. The acidity was still strong and vibrant, giving the wine a strong backbone that made me wish that I’d have the opportunity to meet it again 10 years from now. The strong bruised apple flavor finish lingered on.
Extending this flight of fancy was a dish of sliced dates. Crunchy, slightly sweet yumminess!
I often wonder what wine pairs well with Korean food. But when I’m drinking a black raspberry wine like bokbunja (복분자), there’s less to worry about. This particular Sanmaesu (산매수) brand of bokbunja from Sunoonsan Mountain (선운산) was much drier than the version I’d tried at Mimi and Alex’s a few weeks ago, but there’s still a hint of sugar. Grace noted how the sweetness hits in the beginning, but this black raspberry wine is completely dry by the time you swallow it. The very berry black raspberry-like concentrate and candy smell hits as you raise the cup to drink and consistently stays as you drink. This opaque purple liquid seems both sweet and sour, and it leaves a very light coat of tannin in your mouth. It is the perfect antidote to the ammonia laden stink of hongeojjim (홍어찜).
I feel so privileged to be guest blogging on Grace’s One Fork, One Spoon. It’s a different voice, but I hope to harness the same love and bright curiosity about food and wine that Grace conveys so joyfully on this blog.
I grew up in Korea, but didn’t appreciate the rich diversity of Korean food until I went away and got into wine. Maybe it’s because the effort put into trying to find a sense of place in what I was drinking naturally began to extend into what I was eating. Just like a riesling isn’t just a riesling when the taut acidity evokes images of the Mosel, all of a sudden, bibimbap (비빔밥) isn’t just bibimbap from a monolithic Korea, but a dish that varies by region and where it is so special in Jeollabukdo’s city of Junju, that it’s called Junju Bibimbap (전주 비빔밥).
Not all wines carry or evoke a sense of place for me and similarly, nor does all Korean food and drink, but that doesn’t take away from the sheer yumminess of certain things. On Monday, I tried the deliciousness of makgeolli (막걸리) for the first time. Slightly sweet, this spritzy rustic wine derived from steamed rice tasted a bit like a creamy Yakult with alcohol and paired well with the million courses we ate that night including this super yummy beef that you dip into sesame oil and salt.