I am a big fan of dumplings and other foods that come in small packages. Whether they're called pierogies, pelmeni, or potstickers, manti or empanadas, I can't imagine a more satisfying snack. Savory, sweet, served with or without sauce, deep fried, steamed, baked or boiled – I love them all. At home I enjoy making my own homemade potstickers and ravioli, and when I travel, I seek out the local varieties in street stalls and snack shops. While traveling and living in various parts of East Asia, I've enjoyed discovering dumplings in all their glorious incarnations.
|Steamers at Gui Il Mandu in Sinchon|
Chinese dumplings are also distinguishable by cooking method. Ordering shui jiao (水餃) produced something that was exactly as their Chinese characters predicted: “water” （水）＋ “dumpling” （餃 ）= boiled dumplings. If I saw guotie (鍋貼) on the menu, I knew to expect a steam-fried dumpling, crisp and golden on the pot side, pale and slightly chewy on the reverse, what we call a “potsticker” in English. Furthermore, anything labeled baozi would be either steamed or baked.
With so many different fillings to choose from, I never got bored. They ranged from the sweet: red or yellow bean paste, or my favorite, black sesame paste; to the savory: anything from Chinese chives and egg, to thin sweet potato noodles with spiced eggplant, to ground pork and cabbage, to the “three freshnesses” (sanxian 三鮮) of shrimp, egg, and pork. If I ordered dumplings in a restaurant, the filling would be included in the name on the menu, but on the street I typically had to ask what a particular item contained. Although the exact nature of many Chinese dishes were obscured by poetic names (once, judging from the name of the dish, what I thought to be bamboo shoots turned out to be a plate of steamed intestines), dumplings were one thing I could count on to be transparently named.
I later encountered a similar situation while traveling in Japan. There, I found gyoza, thin wrapper type dumplings, and manju, bread type buns. Furthermore, they were named differently according to the cooking method. If I ordered yaki gyoza (焼き餃子) I got steam-fried dumplings, lined belly-up displaying a golden layer of fried dough where they stuck to the pan. Asking for sui gyoza (水餃子) produced boiled crescent-shaped dumplings, whereas nikuman (肉まん) got me meat-filled steamed buns reminiscent of Chinese baozi.
After moving to Korea in 2009, armed with the knowledge that mandu (만두) meant "dumpling," I anticipated that soon the Korean classification of dumplings would become clear.
Oops, never mind...
Many tasty mandu meals and snacks later, and having added to my glossary of specific mandu types, I am still puzzled about how one can predict the type of mandu one will get. Mandu came to Korea via China centuries ago, during the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, and at that time there seems to have been a connection between mandu, a Sino-Korean word, and the Chinese word mantou, where mantou might have originally meant a jiaozi-type dumpling. However, the uses of the words in both countries have since diverged: While mandu now refers to a variety of dumplings in Korean, mantou simply refers to plain steamed bread in Chinese. On a recent trip to Hyundai department store's food hall, I discovered three different items, all called mandu. One was a flat panfried crescent similar to gyoza, another resembled a steamed jiaozi, and the third looked like a large baozi.
While I will eagerly eat any mandu offered to me, a lack of a clear classification system makes it difficult to discuss mandu matters, and sometimes leads to disappointment when ordering. Here's my attempt to sort through the chaos: by examining the factors of wrapper type, cooking method, shape, and filling.
Out of all the factors, this seems the murkiest. Here in Seoul at least, simply listing mandu on a menu might refer to either a thin wrapper type or bread type dumpling. Two examples from the area around Sinchon station exit 6 will illustrate this point. Gui Il Mandu (귀일만두) offers kimchi mandu that are the thin wrapper type. However, the petite, round kimchi mandu at Rotary Bunsik (로타리분식) are bread type. So far, I have found only one exception to this confusion: the poja (포자, baozi) offered at Hyundai department store's food hall, which delivers on what it promises, a steamed bread bun with filling.
This said, what I've found is that if you encounter the simple term mandu on a menu it tends to be steamed (if the stacked metal or bamboo baskets outside didn't already tell you that). Furthermore, there is one item in my experience that is always predictable – jjinppang (찐빵) always refers to the steamed bread type, like Chinese baozi or mantou or Japanese manju, and either contains a filling or is plain.
|Homemade gochu mandu|
There are also mandu of different sizes. While Myongin Mandu's gochu mandu are bite-sized, and an order of 12 or so serves nicely as a light snack, you can easily make a meal out of several wang mandu (왕만두, literally “king” mandu), about two inches in diameter each.
Since I find them all equally delicious, the ambiguity of the term mandu hasn't been a problem per se. Actually, encountering inconsistencies can be fun and interesting, and I've come to accept it as the slightly mysterious but always fun process of ordering and consuming mandu.