In the Kitchen: Mandu and memories

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When I make dumplings, I think of Christmas. I am transported back to my childhood and my grandparent’s house in a Florida golf community. My halmoni, mom and aunties are sitting around the square table in the breakfast nook, chattering in Korean and folding tasty fillings into doughy pillows. Later, the dumplings will be steamed, pan-fried or boiled.

I fold along with them, though my versions tend to be over-stuffed and a little sloppy. Still, it’s great to be the kid amongst the grown-ups. Most of what they say sweeps over my head, but I can usually get the gist by interpreting the tone of their voices. If they are speaking in whispers, chances are the subject is one of the men sitting over in the living room in front of the TV.

I still love to make and eat mandu. It’s the tastiest of nostalgia, Christmastime or not … These were made with beef, kimchi, zucchini and tofu, a little twist on our old family classic.

It’s important to get rid of as much liquid as you can. So salt the zucchini for 10 minutes before rinsing, and squeeze out as much juice as you can from the kimchi. The former should be chopped small enough not to make big lumps and possibly tears in the skins. The latter can be whirred up in the food processor, quick and easy.

The filling. And, yes, that's a cookie scoop!

Not too much filling or the dumplings will leak.

The first fold.

Pinched shut.

In go the "fancy" folds ...

The final product.

A great local brand of dumpling skins -- nice and thick!

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Koreanese Bento #24: So starts the dragon year

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Dragons lair: Three pork and water chestnut dumpling dragons perched on a red-leaf lettuce salad; a flock of carrot birds atop sauteed cucumbers and beef with rice. Fresh berries for a happy ending.

I haven’t made bento in a long, long time. While there are numerous joys of working from home, such as the irrelevance of kimchi breath, it doesn’t make much sense to pack your lunch. In addition, when you do work “out,” it’s usually at a cafe, where toting in your own food would be highly frowned upon!

That said, I’ve been cooped up in the apartment all week with a nasty cold. It began Sunday night and grew worse with each passing day … Finally, with the aid of magical antibiotics and a whole lot of tea, I am just now released from my self-imposed quarantine.

Thought I’d celebrate with a little bento-making. Year of the Dragon, this one’s for you. Hope you are healthier moving forward.

Koreanese bento #22: Stinky bento yum

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Teriyaki mushrooms over rice next to fruit and mini chocolate chip cookies; assorted panchan of seasoned spinach, bracken, black beans, spicy fish cake, marinated perilla leaves and dried anchovies.

I normally make my own Korean side dishes, but April has been a crazy month. I’ve been finishing up my master’s project and had little time to belabor my many loves, including cooking. So I went crazy in the pre-made section of the Korean market last week and have been happily transforming my purchases into kim bop, bibim bop and now a bento. Fly out tomorrow to defend. What a relief! I can get back to cooking after that … At least I made the mushrooms from scratch! Happy bento days ahead.

My checkout haul at Kukje Market in Daly City. It's amazing how far $84 can go at the Korean market versus at Whole Foods. I go crazy whenever I shop there, though I have to say their miyok guk tastes sadly nothing like my mom's.

Koreanese bento #5: Invasion of the octopi

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Chicken sausage octopi invade unsuspecting bento box, feasting on the kimchi omu rice, edamame and fresh berries inside.

As I’m going through a Japanese cuisine cooking phase, I’ve been studying up a lot on the subject, watching video series on YouTube, like Cooking with Dog, and pouring over my favorite Japanese cookbooks in the tub (favorite pastime).

I’ve realized that sometimes I’m not sure if something is Japanese or Korean … For instance, the above-mentioned omurice. Now, I first ate the omelet-over-fried-rice dish while studying abroad in Seoul. We would slather ketchup all over the tasty egg and then dig in with one of those long, wide Korean spoons down to the steaming rice below.

But then, I look in my Japanese cookbooks, and there it is: omurice. So which one is it?

And then there’s the matter of rabbit-shaped apple slices. My mother made these for me my whole childhood. It was the only way I would eat apples, which I never much cared for … Even today, I never eat apples (thought I do love apple sauce, juice, pie, etc.) But I guarantee that if you slice an apple up like a bunny, I will finish the whole thing!

Then, earlier this year, I discovered the apple bunnies in the pages of The Just Bento Cookbook, which states that all Japanese kids grow up knowing and loving these tasty treats. What? They’re not Korean? How can that be?

A plate of apple bunnies, just like my mom used to make. I ate the whole thing.

But I guess growing up where no one else’s mom packed apple bunnies in their lunches, much less roasted seaweed squares and stinky kimchee, I had no one to compare with … There wasn’t another Korean kid in my class until high school and certainly no Japanese!

I guess in the end, it doesn’t matter whether apple bunnies or omurice originated in Japan or Korea. They’re still a part of what I see as my amorphous and ever-changing Asian-American culture/identity. But I’m still curious who invented them.

Here’s a video on making omurice on “Cooking with Dog.”