Dumpling party marks Korean New Year with hundreds of mandu and dozens of eaters

Having hosted dumpling parties year after year, Grace Hong has become something akin to a dumpling master. She shows you how to fold the perfect one. (Gabriel Silverman/The Washington Post)
January 21

Grace Hong is pretty sure her mother would be appalled. Not at the fact that she and her husband celebrate the new year with traditional lucky mandu, dumplings made the Korean way. But possibly at every other aspect of their celebration. With 600 dumplings, 60 guests and an unmentionable amount of wine and beer, the annual fete they call Dumplingfest violates most, if not all, of her mother’s holiday traditions.

Hong, 40, grew up in Lyons, N.Y., not far from Rochester. “We were the only Asian family in town,” she says. And every New Year, for a small, family-only gathering, her mother would make duk mandu guk, a traditional Korean soup. She would fill a large soup pot with beef bones and aromatic vegetables to make the rich broth, in which she simmered meat-filled dumplings and glutinous rice cakes, symbols of prosperity.

Compare that to Dumplingfest, which was born when Hong missed the flavors of her mother’s cooking 10 years after her death. At the first party in 2004, she remembers three skillets filled with oil, a few dozen dumplings — and an unholy mess. The next year, she and husband David Olsen, 42, bought a deep-fryer and invited more people to their small apartment in Glover Park, encouraging everyone to help form the dumplings, tend the fryer and stir the soup. Even early on, by inviting friends Hong was veering away from her mother’s family-centric celebration. Fried dumplings? They were never part of a New Year’s meal, either. And no guest, on any occasion, would have been asked to shape their own dumplings. Ever. 

One of the only things the two traditions have in common, in fact, is the timing. Though the Lunar New Year marked in some Asian households is later than the West’s (this year it’s Jan. 31 in Korea, China and Vietnam), Hong and her husband celebrate on Jan. 1, as her parents always did and as many Korean Americans do. “All of us kids were sure to be home from school on that day,” she says.

The other tie that binds the parties is, of course, the main attraction. Across Asian cultures, filled dumplings — steamed, fried or simmered in soup — are said to bring good fortune in the coming year. Andrea Nguyen, author of “Asian Dumplings,” says they’re formed to look like gold ingots, to represent prosperity. However, at least traditionally, “Korean dumplings are not so much about the shape as the texture,” she says. “The wrappers are made from wheat and a glutinous rice flour, so they are chewy — even a little sticky. The texture says, ‘Good fortune will stick to you.’ ”

Hong’s parents, Dong-Gi and Theresa Hong, emigrated from Korea in 1967 and, like many first- and second-generation immigrant families, assimilated in dozens of ways to accommodate their new homeland. But the change Hong and Olsen made in 2011 would have been downright befuddling to Theresa. After viewing the documentary “Forks Over Knives,” the two avid bicyclists became vegan. “We’re not intransigent: We’ll enjoy the meat-filled dumplings at Dumplingfest or taste non-vegan dishes from time to time,” Olsen says.

Nonetheless, adds Hong, “the addition of a vegetarian dumpling to the already modified new year celebration is another check mark on the list of things my mother never would have done.”             

A team effort
 Twenty-eight hours before this year’s Dumplingfest begins, Hong and Olsen pull into the parking lot at the Wheaton outlet of the Asian grocery chain H Mart. They organize shopping bags, the list and a plan of action before plunging into the crowd.

Hong has carefully calculated how much food to buy. She plans for about a dozen fried dumplings per person and another three in each bowl of soup. Some guests will go far beyond their allotted 12, so there is plenty of wiggle room. Last year, there were no dumplings left at the end of the night. Not one.

She picks out white cabbage, scallions and grassy, pungent Chinese chives. Olsen is sent in search of bean sprouts and mushrooms. Swerving through the aisles with precision and speed, they add a bucket of freshly made, soft tofu and nearly 10 pounds of ground beef and pork before moving on to the center aisles for rice vermicelli noodles and roasted, salted seaweed sheets — another shortcut her mother would look upon with dismay. As a child, Hong remembers spending hours sitting tableside with sheets of seaweed, painting each one with Korean sesame oil, sprinkling them with salt and stacking them high. After preparing dozens of sheets, she stood at the stove wafting them back and forth across the electric burner to roast. It’s easier to buy them.

In the freezer section, Hong picks up a dozen packages of gyoza skins, half of them square and the other half round — and, unlike traditional mandu wrappers, made of wheat, so they’re not as sticky. She uses the shapes to distinguish between meat-filled and vegetarian dumplings.

A crate of blue crabs brings back memories of watching her mother tearing live crabs to pieces and packing them in jars with salt and chili paste to ferment: “My mom was tough.” As in many Korean homes, there was a refrigerator in the basement dedicated to all manner of kimchi. In H Mart’s prepared-foods section, Hong selects a variety of house-made kimchis: radish, zucchini and the traditional cabbage. She supplements these spicy dishes with something milder, tofu in sweet chili sauce. She lingers over a small container of fermented, tiny, whole fish — a favorite snack from childhood — then drops it into the shopping cart. They are pungent, salty and sensational.

Back at their Mount Pleasant home, Hong pulls out two enormous bowls and starts mixing dumpling fillings while Olsen sets up the back porch, running long extension cords to two deep-fryers (one borrowed from good friend Judie Lieu, who also provides homemade Sriracha and spicy soy sauce.)  

Olsen expects plenty of help with the frying from the Juggernauts, an entirely unofficial bicycle team (complete with jerseys and a Web site). While most weekends are spent on a tandem bike with Hong, Olsen often joins the Juggernauts for bike races all around the Chesapeake region. The team members bring the same enthusiasm to Dumplingfest and have appetites born from hard exercise. Most of the guests are friends they’ve met riding, along with a smattering of former neighbors and work colleagues. Notably, guests Eric Welp and Matt Lough are Dumplingfest regulars, known to end the party with rousing renditions of “Rocket Man,” with Hong at the piano. And the party “closer,” the one who is sure to eat the very last dumpling? Paul Morris and Lough (again) have a friendly competition for the honor.

The party starts mid-afternoon and goes until nearly midnight. Hundreds of dumplings are formed at the kitchen peninsula. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the experienced teach the newcomers, and tidy triangles and half-moons are lined up on baking sheets, simplifying transport to the fryers. Hot fried dumplings are passed around with bowls of Sriracha and spicy soy sauce as well as a traditional sweet-and-salty dipping sauce. Everyone is smiling broadly. There is no way to be unhappy eating a dumpling, and this is most evident on the face of Ryan, Hong and Olsen’s 17-month-old son.

In the 10 years since Dumplingfest began, the guests have grown older, some have married and many have children. This year, that change is seen in a living room filled with kids happily playing, munching on dumplings and sipping soup. The crowd grows each year, as new attendees learn the correct way to fill and fold a dumpling. Those new to the process soon learn that overstuffing leads to dumpling failure in the fryer, so they are encouraged to hold back, using only about a teaspoon of the savory filling in each packet. 

Other guests oversee the deep-fryers with Olsen, braving freezing temperatures to coax a crisp, puffy exterior from each carefully formed triangle or half-moon.

It’s true Theresa Hong, who died in 1994, would be surprised by the way her family celebration has morphed into Dumplingfest. But while she might take issue with some of the specifics, surely she would appreciate the spirit: the spectacular flavors, the hospitality and the camaraderie her daughter cooks up in her own kitchen.

Barrow’s first cookbook, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (W.W. Norton), will be published in the fall. She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range live chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.

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