Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Mystery of 'Mandu'

Note: This is an expanded and revised version of a post from January 2010.

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
At many dumpling stalls and restaurants across the region you can see the dumplings displayed out front (usually steaming in towers of stacked baskets) and thus have an idea of what you will be ordering. That is not always the case, however, and there are many different varieties, all called by different names. When I lived in China, I became accustomed to how dumplings and their brethren were classified. Basically, there were two types of dumpling-esque foods: those made with a thin wrapper of water and flour, which I will refer to as 'thin wrapper type' and those made with a yeast-risen dough similar to bread, henceforth known as 'bread type.' If I encountered a menu item with the character jiao (餃),  I knew to expect a thin wrapper type dumpling crimped into a half-moon shape. On the other hand, if I saw a street vendor uncovering a basket crowded with round steamed breadlike buns containing a sweet  or savory filling, I knew to order baozi(飽子)and when they did not contain a filling, mantou(饅頭).

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.

Wrapper type
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.

Cooking method
Gun mandu
It would be really helpful if Korean mandu were consistently labeled by their cooking method, like in China and Japan. This happens sometimes, but more often than not simply mandu is used. However, it's useful to know these words for when they do turn up on menus. Jin (진) means “steamed,” so jin mandu (진만두) indicates a steamed dumpling (whether it will be a thin wrapper type or bread type is a different story). There are many different terms that can be used for fried mandu: some places use gun (군), “fried,” while others mix Japanese and Korean, calling them yaki mandu (야끼만두) or use another Korean word for fried,  twigim mandu (튀김만두).  Additionally, there's mul mandu (물만두), “water” mandu, boiled dumplings.

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
Mandu also come in different shapes: in half-moons (flat or bulgy), in balls with pinched tops, or folded like tortellini, with a round of filling in the middle and a seal on one end. The half-moon shape tends to be the most common, at least here in Seoul, but there are plenty of round ones too, usually with pinched tops, like the gochu (고추 hot green pepper) mandu at Myongin Mandu (명인만두), a chain with branches around the city. These cute baby mandu (which, incidentally, are steamed thin wrapper type) look a bit like little pointed hats.

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.

kimchi mandu
In spite of all the confusion, one factor has been most reliable: the filling. For example, kimchi mandu (김치만두) contains kimchi mixed with ground pork, kalbi mandu (갈비만두), a specialty of Mapo Mandu (마포만두),  contains kalbi, and the aforementioned gochu mandu features spicy green peppers (like the kimchi mandu, mixed with ground pork). However, this does not solve the problem of transparency: ordering kimchi mandu from a menu, you have an equal chance of receiving either a thin wrapper type or a bread type dumpling.

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.


Josh said...

Thanks for posting... While I don't have the same vocabulary to express the names and types of various dumplings (especially the Asian varieties), I too often order dumplings, regardless of nationality. They are truly wonderful foods. I really enjoyed this and post and the others that I've been able to read here on your blog. Thanks for writing... keep them coming. :)

Here in Haiti, there is a dumpling like sandwich that we eat often called a pattie. We jokingly refer to them as Haitian Hot Pockets... They are pretty good. :)

Jaemus said...

You're welcome, and thanks for your comments! I'm glad that you enjoyed reading it; always good to know a fellow dumpling fan.

Ha ha, Haitian Hot Pockets...I've heard of Jamaican patties and would assume the two are similar (?). What kinds of fillings can you get?

Thomas said...

The "Mystery of the 'Mandu'" is one of those things that have been bugging me about Korea for quite a while now. I don't know, it seems so wrong that they just can't get it right! I personally prefer the Guotie (鍋貼) or Jiaozi (餃子) type, so I'm always happy when I see the words "교자", because then I know what I'm getting.
I've probably told you this one before, but you know the story of the freshman Chinese student in Beijing who wanted to order a bowl of Jiaozi? He wanted to ask the female owner "水餃一碗多少錢?". But because his tones were a little off it came across as "睡覺一晚多少錢?"

Jaemus said...

Well T you had a similar experience, having studied in China before you came here and all, so it doesn't surprise me that you share my point of you see 교자 or 포자 that often though? I rarely do. Kinda wish those were used more often.

Haha - (cue drum roll and cymbal crash) Punny!


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