one more bowl of dumpling soup, but please, no octopus!

book and soup
Nothing like a bowl of homemade mandu to start off a new year!

Once upon a time, I published a picture book called Dumpling Soup, illustrated by Lillian Hsu-Flanders:

Every year on New Year’s Eve, my whole family goes to Grandma’s house for dumpling soup. My aunties and uncles and cousins come from all around Oahu. Most of them are Korean, but some are Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, or haole (Hawaiian for white people). Grandma calls our family ‘chop suey,’ which means ‘all mixed up’ in pidgin. I like it that way. So does Grandma. ‘More spice,’ she says.

This year, I celebrated the New Year in Hawai’i for the first time in decades. Thanks to my mom, I got to eat my favorite traditional Korean dishes, and for the first time ever, I got to hear my story read aloud on New Year’s Eve.

julia book

julia book 2

My niece Julia wasn’t yet born when the book was first published almost twenty years ago, and she never experienced those big, noisy family gatherings I so fondly recall in the story. But at least she can still eat some of the same food! It was hilarious hearing her trying to pronounce the Korean phrases — but what a wonderful, expressive reader she is, and for a few moments, I was 7 years old again, smack dab in the middle of “so many Yangs!” πŸ™‚

When you’re little, those “heaping plates of food” just magically appear, and you never think about the hours and hours of preparation required to make them. In the old days, New Year’s was a big potluck with ten of my mother’s eleven siblings and their families. But now, with relatives gone or scattered, she has to wing it on her own. Even though the “feast” is scaled down considerably, it’s still time consuming to produce her preferred variety of side dishes in a small galley kitchen.

Ribbet collage namul
Bean Sprout Namul

For two days, I watched this 88-year-old dynamo slice, chop, mince, boil, shred, stir, mix, toss, steam, and fry. She would only accept minimal help from me, preferring to stick to her time-honored, perfectly honed techniques and a cooking schedule that began weeks before I arrived, when she made and froze the dumplings.

I watched in awe as she wielded a giant knife, using it to string celery and trim green beans. With shiitake mushrooms soaking, vermicelli and chicken soup simmering, beef short ribs marinating, a pan of veggies sizzling, I dared not disturb her carefully orchestrated rhythm and unflinching focus.

Ribbet collagechap chae
Japchae: Thin slices of marinated beef and veggies tossed with sweet potato starch noodles.
fried chon
Shrimp, Fish and Beef Jhun

But she did let me clean the mung bean sprouts, bone the chicken, fry the beef, shrimp, and fish jhun, and help set the table. And I did ask again about a crucial step in making the dumpling filling: wrapping the tofu and cabbage in dish towels and running it through the spin cycle of the washing machine to get all the liquid out.

With our dumplings, we eat roast pork, three kinds of kimchi, spinach and bean sprout namul, spicy seaweed, taegu, boiled tripe, and octopus.

octopus platter
Boiled Octopus

Lest you think I love all the Korean dishes mentioned in the story, let me finally set the record straight: I will not, no, not ever, never eat octopus! I don’t care if it’s a rare, albeit expensive delicacy that even meat-and-potatoes-raised Len will eat.

Dear Reader, I draw the line at tentacles.

There is no dipping sauce in the world that can change the texture of chewy octopus legs in your mouth.

But I admit to being duly impressed by how it’s cooked. For years, it has been my father’s job to wash the octopus. Since he is now 98 years old, on 24-hour oxygen and unsteady on his feet, my mother offered to do it. But no, some things are sacred — my Dad insisted he would wash the octopus just as he always did.

Ribbet collageoctopus

In a word: eewwwwwwww. Long and slimy and gross. He rubbed on a lot of Hawaiian salt, gave that mighty mollusc a good massage before cutting off its head. After the head was cleaned out, everything was rinsed thoroughly, then tossed into a big pot to be gently boiled in two bottles of beer. The octopus turned reddish brown when it was fully cooked. I’ve since learned that octopi are highly intelligent creatures with short and long term memories, able to distinguish between different shapes and patterns. No doubt, our octopus was probably capable of plotting revenge!

octopus macro
Would you eat this?

So I steered clear of Mr. Octopus, and thoroughly enjoyed all the other good food, especially the yak pap:

Hiram and I love the Korean dessert we get only on New Year’s: yak pap. He pulls off a chunk of the brown sticky rice mixed with honey, dates, and pine nuts and hands it to me. I lick every bit off my fingers.

yak pap 2 500
Freshly made Yak Pap!
yak pap 500

We have to thank Auntie “Grace” for making the yak pap, which was so, so good, just as good as Grandma Yang’s. As far as I know, she’s the only family member who still makes this labor-intensive treat.

Right along with the salty, spicy, piquant and sweet came a lot of mixed emotions. Our joyful bites were inevitably tempered by poignant memories of missing loved ones.

pork 500
Yum, Roast Pork (Emeril would be happy)!
Len grilled the Kalbi!

Grandma Yang, at whose home we always, always celebrated New Year’s, died back in 1982, and only 5 of my mother’s siblings are still alive. Her eldest brother, Myung Ho, who swallows seven mochi (rice cakes) in the story and later tells main character Marisa that her funny-looking dumplings are “ono! delicious!” is gone. Two of the dumpling-wrapping aunts, “Auntie Elsie” and “Auntie Ruth,” passed away several years ago within a year of each other. And the Gum Chew Lau Noodle Factory, which provided the special dumpling wrappers, no longer exists.

jama and margaret step
Me and my mom in Grandma’s front yard.
grandma yang's house now
Today, Grandma’s house is unrecognizable: this two story structure sits right in the front yard, where my cousins and I used to play the famous shoe store game.

But thankfully some things stay the same, or even move happily forward. My dad is still the official taster for everything my mother cooks (and her hands still smell like garlic). My cousin Marisa is now married with a son of her own, and my older brother “Hiram” still likes to tease me — behavior typical of an elephant ear loving octopus eater. πŸ™‚

mochi 500
LOVE mochi!

It was strange hearing fireworks on New Year’s Eve, since I’m now only used to them on the 4th of July. But it was fun to have cousin Carol drop by with my favorite white fruitcake, homemade cookies and a new granddaughter, my friend Lynn with freshly pounded mochi; to be prodded by Julia for childhood stories of her father, to remember the all-night marathon family poker game I was not allowed to include in a story for children.

mandoo bowl 2

The writing of this book, the remembering and reliving, the eating, laughing and sharing, become more precious with each passing year. What matters more than food and family — food made with love for love of family?

Those heart and soul-nourishing bites of dumpling soup will sustain me for the coming year; how lucky I am to have grown up in a place of such rich cultural diversity and largesse, with parents so fiercely committed to preserving tradition.

jama baby step
Dumpling Jama on Grandma’s front step.

I think about how much everyone liked the dumpling soup. Even my funny dumplings. Maybe it was because we ate them at Grandma’s, all of us together.

‘Next year,’ I tell everyone, ‘I will make even better dumplings.’

I can hardly wait.

Hello, brand-new year!

octopus (2)
“I’ll have 8 dumplings, please.”
cornelius mandoo
“Not a chance.”

* * *

β™₯ Read more about how I wrote and published Dumpling Soup here.

β™₯ Click here for some of Margaret’s Korean recipes, including Japchae, Shrimp Jhun, Kalbi, and Cucumber Kimchi.

* * *

weekend cooking button (2)180This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best bib and join us for all the delicious fun!


Copyright Β© 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

74 thoughts on “one more bowl of dumpling soup, but please, no octopus!

  1. What a wonderful, heartfelt post!

    I remember having your book in my library’s collection back in my LMS days. πŸ™‚

    Tammi, who will never eat octopus


  2. I love all your memories re-visited here Jama. What a sweet trip you must have had this time, & I am amazed at your mother & father still keeping on with the traditions for you & others in the family. How lucky your niece is to have had a “taste” of family, although it’s not all the same. And I love little dumpling Jama-looks just like who I see in your grown-up photos! Thank you!


    1. Thanks, Linda, glad you enjoyed the post. My parents do amaze all of us with what they’re able to do at their age. Their appetites haven’t diminished one bit :). Just goes to show what good food can do.

      Your hungry friend,
      Dumpling Jama


  3. Jama,
    My heart is filled to the brim after reading this beautiful, personal post. Thanks so much for sharing the joy of family and food. Happy New Year, happy reading and happy eating!


  4. No octopus for me, either, but mmmm, please pass the yak pap!

    Such a yummy post, Jama. You are so fortunate to have come from a family that honors traditions in this way. Happy New Year to you and yours. xo


    1. Another member of the No Octopus Club — if we can get 8 members we’re all set :D. Please have as much yak pap as you like . . . Happy New Year to you, Melodye !


  5. Aw, this post made me laugh and cry. I love your parents!!! I’m SO glad you got to spend the holidays with them this year.

    “Dear Reader, I draw the line at tentacles.” hahaha

    When I was growing up, I had a good friend who is filipino, and I had dinner at their house all the time. I tried a lot of different things, but I, too, drew the line at tentacles. πŸ™‚


    1. Hi Lisa!

      I haven’t had much Filipino food outside of lumpia and a few sweet treats. Didn’t realize they also ate octopus. I think if I hadn’t seen the raw octopus I might have been more apt to take a bite. Well, maybe not . . . .

      Happy 2013!


  6. I love this post! And speaking of dynamos, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh, and I echo all the other “ewwws” octopus-wise. Best of all, I love seeing your lovely niece reading your book about the family’s traditions. Wonderful, all of it.


    1. Thanks so much, Linda — welcome to the Octopus Club! It was really special hearing Julia read my book — all along I was the one who read it to kids, so it was a nice change. Funny thing is that whenever I got to the “boiled octopus” line, the kids always used to say, “ewwwww!”


  7. I’ll have you know that we’ve been reading “Dumpling Soup” on New Years Eve for the past several years, since we won your book. In fact, my 10-year-old insisted on it. Because we were doing other things earlier in the evening, I finished the story with literally about 2 minutes to spare before midnight – perfect timing!

    I’ve tried fried squid (eh, ok) but haven’t ever encountered octopus. I admit your father’s version looks entirely too “real” – you can see the suckers and everything! – so I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to try or not. I would LOVE to try yak pap, though – it sounds so good.

    (You would probably laugh at my attempts at pronouncing the Korean words, too – any chance the next time the book is printed, you could add in a glossary? :-D)

    I’m sorry to hear that so much from the story is now gone; family members, the house, the noodle factory. But it makes it so special to have this book, to know all the real things it’s based on – so that all those people and places can live on. I feel very fortunate not only to have found the book, but to have found you and your blog through it. And thank you for the Christmas card, too! *hug* Mele Kalikimaka and happy new year!


    1. Happy New Year, Debbie! Wonderful to hear that reading DS has become a kind of tradition with your family. Others have told me the same, mostly recently, a lovely woman from Australia — only when they read it, one of the girls says, “So many Yees!” instead of “So many Yangs!” πŸ™‚

      I’ll give you points for eating squid — I’ll pass on that too.

      The book already has a glossary of words — don’t think a reprinting with additional phrases is possible after all this time. You’ll just have to take Korean language lessons :).

      Mmmm, wish I had more Yak Pap. Think you would enjoy it. Not overly sweet at all.


  8. With your wonderful big family and your tasty Korean dishes, I find myself just a bit envious of your New Year celebration. So much from which to draw for your fabulous book; I wait in stubborn hope for more. β™₯


    1. Our family is getting smaller and it’s time for the younger generation to pick up the mantle (or in this case, the ladle), for future celebrations. I “listen” for more family stories whenever possible — I wait in stubborn hope as well for all the right ingredients to meld. β™₯


  9. Your post made me cry. I love that book and am sorry to think of your family getting smaller. I like making your recipes too.
    I have eaten calamari (fried squid that looks like onion rings) and loved it but I would not be able to eat that octopus. Yikes!


    1. Aw, thanks for reading, Patti. Happy to hear you’ve made some of the recipes! I admit calamari isn’t one of my favorites either. Looks like the Octopus Club has another member. Glad you’re joining us :).


  10. My Dad… Likes… SQUID!!! Blech! *faints, grabbing at throat*
    “Dear Reader, I draw the line at tentacles.” – Ha Ha Ha!
    Thank you for telling us about your New Years! The food (except for the octopus) sounds great!


    1. Another squid eater? Oh dear, perhaps he’ll give you some next time :D. It might taste okay with a little peanut butter on it. . .

      Happy New Year to you. Glad you enjoyed the post!


  11. Happy New Year, Jama!
    How wonderful you got to celebrate in Hawaii! What a great book! And the food all looks amazing! I actually like “tako” and so does Jamie! ha ha. But we usually eat it in takoyaki, so you don’t really see it…
    WIshing you the best in 2013!


    1. Ack! Octopus Eaters! Don’t worry, I still like you :). That’s actually cool that Jamie likes it and is open to trying unusual foods. I don’t suppose Denis favors those tantalizing tentacles . . .


  12. Absolutely wonderful! But, wait, who is supposed to adopt whom? And, so sorry, but I love octopus (as long as somebody else does the cooking)!


    1. Wonders never cease. Wouldn’t have taken you for an octopus lover, Michelle — but then, you Gourmandistanis are free-ranging and wild people :).


  13. Oh Jama, sounds like you had a marvelous New Years Eve! All of the food looks wonderful, well except for that humongous octopus. I must say though that I have tried baby octopus in an octopus salad at a wonderful little Japanese restaurant here. To me, it was like chewing on a rubber band. Not a fan. — Could you share your recipe for Yakpak? It sounds delicious.


  14. That photo of you on the doorstep is adorable! Almost as cute as me at the piano! πŸ˜‰

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Okay, Jill, you’re in the Anti-Octopus Club! Meetings will be held every August 8th at 8 p.m. Please bring 8 cookies for refreshments.


  15. My heart is full after reading this, seeing the photos, and imagining the glorious rich spicy smells in that kitchen!

    I’m OK with octopus – just please, no smoked eel.


  16. What a super-fabulous post! And happy new year to you. Too funny on the octopus. I’ll eat it and I like it. Just don’t let me watch the preparation! What a feast — I’m so glad you were able to share the holiday with your family and to hear your niece read your book. What a treat.


  17. Beautiful post! I love the weaving of memory and book and memory of the book. The food photos are mouth-watering. I suspect under the right conditions, I’d try the octopus and probably enjoy it more than expected. I just adore the photos of your niece reading the book — what a special experience for every one!


  18. Great post and pics. I’m right with you about octopus although recently I have taken to eating salt and pepper squid which was nice – no tentacles though! Have a great week.


  19. An absolutely delightful post with the memories, the foodie picturesand the heritage pictures thrown in. Your mother must be in very good shape indeed making such a feast with only a little help. Amazing! And your dad, wow! I wouldn’t touch that thing with a ten foot pole, that’s for certain. And eat? Well I do eat octopus, but only if it comes in little tubes and not where I can seeits original shape. Some things don’t bear thinking about, :).
    Your book sounds wonderful.


    1. My parents continue to amaze the whole family. Perhaps eating octopus all these years has contributed to their longevity? I’d like to hear more about this “octopus in little tubes.”


      1. Ha, you got me investigating. Actually, I found out that those “tubes” (in German the body of that thing is called “Tube”) is the body of a squid. They take the body and cut it into rings that are somethimes rather thin and sometimes wider. Or the whole body is filled or fried. They taste really nice and don’t remind you at all of what they come from, which is a good thing, :). Btw, my research sent me to a wikipedia site where they had a video of living octopi in Korean cuisine – as a meal! Ugh!


      2. So, you’re talking about calamari? Lots of folks like that!

        I think I also saw that video of people eating live octopus awhile back (my Dad shared it). It was so gross. Can’t imagine feeling that thing wiggling in your mouth, going down your throat.


  20. I started reading this earlier, but stopped when I got tears in my eyes to come back later. What a new year’s. What a feast. What an amazing person you are, and yes, lucky in how you were raised, but beautiful in how you kept it. I did tear up in places, but smiled at the telling of the poker game kept out of that special book. Have a wonderful year!


    1. The poker game was a big part of our family’s celebration. Started New Year’s Eve after dinner and went on all night — players took a break for fireworks, ate again, then resumed playing, taking intermittent naps as needed. I can still picture my aunts and uncles sitting in a circle on the living room floor, tossing chips into the center :).


  21. What a beautiful post about your family. Such a wonderful tribute that you wrote a book teaching about and preserving memories of your family’s traditions. By the way, I would try the octopus if it was offered to me. πŸ™‚


  22. What a lovely post! Your food memories and family traditions are beautiful – thank you for sharing them!

    Food traditions are my favorite thing about Thanksgiving nowadays – I go to my mother’s family in New York and we all obsess about food for a week. My mother doesn’t do this herself at Christmas, and I miss it. Something about taking that time and caring for your family by feeding them is precious, and I’ve made so many lovely memories.


  23. I love your posts about your family and their meals. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced quite this production with my family–although I guess my dad and Mom prepping for and cooking a full Santa-Maria-Style BBQ might qualify. I’m kind of with you on Octopus, although I will eat little fried calamari tentacles. Maybe it’s because I can call them calamari, not squid?

    And I won’t eat gefilte fish either!


    1. Oh, that Santa Maria Style BBQ sounds fabulous! Family recipe? Side dishes?

      I see you’ve fallen for a romantic name — yes, calamari sounds so much better than squid. But I won’t be fooled. I love seafood in general, but for some reason have always avoided octopus, squid, eels, and oysters. You can eat my share of calamari. πŸ™‚


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