Koreans mark the Lunar New Year festival with an interesting tradition – they eat a bowl of ddeok guk, or rice-cake soup in the (mildly-held, not at all serious) belief that it helps you turn a year older. Forget your actual birthday, depending on how many bowls of ddeok guk you consume, you could reach veritable middle age at Lunar New Year.
These rice cakes are not the humourless, brittle diet-aids that the average Brit is familiar with, to be slathered in butter or whatever you’ve got in the fridge because to eat them plain is hellish. These ddeok are instead glutinous, pleasantly squashy cylinders made of boiled and pounded rice. They are also rather tasteless to my palate, but no one tell my mother-in-law this. There is something strangely comforting in their chewy blandness, uncomplicated and satisfying – a step up from, let’s say, gruel; and a step down from Mother’s milk. (Probably, I don’t know, I can’t remember.)
To add ddeok to a rich broth of garlic, beef stock and the umami weirdness of soy sauce and sesame oil completely raises the taste game, but what’s really needed to make this soup a proper meal are the dumplings.
Korean dumplings, referred to hereafter as ‘mandu’ are fat, snug packages of finely-chopped meat – pork or beef is best – noodles, garlic, ginger, tofu, shredded kimchi and spring onion. This mixture is pressed firmly into mandu skins which are usually made of rice or potato flour and can be cheerfully coloured with various vegetables, like pumpkin, for example.
It has become a family tradition that every New Years Eve we sit on the floor in my Parents-in-law’s bedroom and assemble our mandu ready to be steamed, frozen and later eaten at the Lunar New Year. It’s a tradition I have come to love, in spite of the old lady knee-ache that comes from spending hours sitting cross-legged on the floor (English legs and Korean legs are not alike. One day I’ll teach you about the Ajumma Squat, and the fearsome angles old Korean women can be comfortable in.)
I have always absolutely hated New Years Eve, with it’s extreme pressure to have THE BEST NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, and so do not mourn the loss of the annual event spent queuing with other miserable people to get into shit venues. Instead we do the countdown to Midnight in our pyjamas, with some dodgy z-lit Korean celebrities on the TV, and toast our beer glasses with floury, mandu-y hands. Nobody here knows about Auld Laing Syne and so nobody takes a running jump at it only for everyone to politely look away, embarrassed.
My mandu have improved in appearance over the years – in the beginning they looked like sad, half-emptied pupae; now they look something more akin to the real deal. My mother-in-law always reminds me that if you can make beautiful mandu it means that you will have beautiful daughters. If so, my girl will just have to get by on her personality.
Here’s how to make ddeok mandu guk, or rice cake and dumpling soup:
Ddeok mandu Guk serves 4
*Shop-bought mandu is fine, they usually come frozen in large bags and can be found in almost all Korean and Chinese food markets. However, if you want to make your own, you will need:
- 500g of minced or finely chopped pork or beef. You can actually use far more than this and make a huge batch to be frozen and used as and when you feel, in which case use your imagination and increase all ingredients sizes accordingly.
- Two large packets of tofu, drained, squeezed through a cheesecloth and crumbled.
- 300g of boiled and finely chopped glass noodles.
- A generous handful garlic cloves, crushed.
- two large spring onions finely chopped.
- 3-4 tablespoons of finely chopped ginger.
- A few handfuls of finely shredded kimchi.
- 1-2 packets of mandu skins.
- an egg for sealing the skins.
- all-purpose flour for dusting the mandu.
For the Ddeok soup:
- 2 litres of water (or as much as you need to fill a large saucepan)
- large packet of ddeok rice cakes.
- 250g of chopped stewing beef.
- 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed.
- 2 generous tablespoons of soy sauce, try to use soy sauce that’s meant for soup, it’s called guk gan jan but if it can’t be found, not to worry
- 2 tablespoons of yeondu seasoning If yeondu is unavailable you can boil an onion skin in the water for extra flavour.
- 2 tablespoons of sesame oil.
- 3 eggs, 2 separated.
- 2-3 tablespoons of ground perilla powder, or sesame powder. If neither available use two extra egg whites.
- one drizzle of any oil.
- Chunkily-chopped spring onion for decoration.
- Salt and pepper.
For the mandu: It is best to make your mandu in advance. Mix the minced meat, two thirds of spring onions, tofu, noodles, garlic, ginger and kimchi together in a large bowl, getting right in with your hands to make sure all components are evenly distributed. Grind a generous amount of pepper into the mix, and add a few pinches of salt. Dust a large tray or work-surface with flour. This is where you’ll place your mandu and you don’t want them to stick.
crack and whisk an egg into a small dish and, dabbing with your finger, use it to moisten (sorry) the rim of the mandu skins. This will help the edges stick together when you form the mandu. Using a table spoon, take a good dollop of the wet mixture and pack it firmly into the centre of your mandu skin. fold the edges of the skin together around the mixture and use your fingers to pinch the skin in pleats along the seam.
It’s best to steam your mandu immediately and then they can be eaten, added to soup of frozen for later use.
For the soup: First season your stewing beef with a little salt and pepper. Boil the water in a large, deep-bottomed pan. When the water begins to boil thrown in your garlic, pinch of salt and the stewing beef. Cover the pan and allow it to boil for fifteen minutes to produce a flavoursome broth.
Reduce the heat until it is just rolling and add the soy sauce, and yeondu. Cover and allow to cook for a further ten minutes.
Take the separated egg yolks, whisk with a fork and add a little salt, before carefully tipping into a sparingly oiled frying pan. Fry the egg on both sides for a couple of minutes until you have a beautiful, shiny yellow disk. remove from heat. Set aside.
Add the ddeok and as many mandu as you want to the soup. We usually go three mandu per person but this might be excessive for normal people. The mandu and ddeok are sufficiently cooked when they rise to the surface. The ddeok should be soft and malleable but not gloopy, similarly the mandu should not disintegrate, but hold it’s shape and wiggle a little when held on a spoon.
Next it depends on what consistency you like your soup to take. If a clearish broth is your bag then you’re done, you dont need to do much else, maybe stir in the separated egg whites to add some extra texture and serve. However, I enjoy the nutty flavour and more opaque, smooth texture that sesame powder or perilla powder gives, so here stir in a few spoonfuls of the powder and allow everything to thicken for a few minutes. Add a couple of glugs of sesame oil right at the end to deepen the flavour and add a shimmer to the soup.
Return to your fried egg yolks, cut them into slivers and after ladeling your ddeok mandu soup into bowls, arrange the egg on top for decoration, with some green spring onion rings as a final garnish.