March 26, 2006

Do-To-Ri Mook, or Korean jello

Acorn jelly with soy sauce

During our first years in the US, it wasn't uncommon for my parents and folks of their generation and above to point out all the edible things that were growing along the roads when we were driving around. Sometimes, much to my and my sibling's deep chagrin - or utter horror - they would venture out to the side of the road when the road conditions permitted and start picking whatever it was that was edible. I remember one particular time when we stopped for mustard plants that were growing wild all over the side of the road. Sometimes, my cousins who had been born and raised in the US would joke, "There's our dinner," when we'd pass by shrubs or just plain weeds by the road. However, the humiliation of waiting for adults gathering food on the side of the road like desperate refugees didn't stop the young ones from enjoying the fruits of their labor. I myself am fond of steamed mustard plants seasoned with sesame oil and garlic.

I think of those adventures, which are now far and between, because my mother was making dotori mook, or acorn jelly, the other day. You could buy this from any of the Korean supermarkets in town but my mother rarely buys them prepared, ones that are most likely less than 100% acorn or natural. She prepares this when she's gotten acorns from somewhere - meaning, someone was industrious enough to gather enough acorns from who-knows-where to share with her. It helps that we live in California where there's an abundance of oak trees in certain areas and that Koreans aren't above picking up stuff from roads along which they may be taking a stroll.

The oak trees where my parents live produce acorns that are usually smaller and thinner than the ones in Korea but a careful observer can usually find one area where the acorns are big and fat. No doubt, it was from such a tree that a friend of my parents gathered enough acorns to share with them.

To me the most interesting part of using acorns as food is that acorns were a crucial part of California's Native American diet and Koreans and Native Americans share the same preparations to make acorns edible. I know this only anecdotally so I may be wrong about the details but it's interesting to note that our ancestors were equally resourceful on this one way of surviving.

To make the acorns edible, you'd have to peel and soak or soak and peel. I think soaking gets rid of some chemical that's poisonous. Tannin? Then you dry them and grind them to powder. To make the jelly, you mix the acorn powder with water and a pinch of salt and keep mixing in a pan over medium heat. You can add more water if you want your jelly very wobbly. You let it sit for a while until it hardens to a texture of jello. Unlike jello, you don't add gelatin or other artificial ingredients to make it firm.

It's a lot of work for something that tastes, frankly, not much. I don't mean it tastes bad. It just doesn't have any particular flavor that would wow you so that you'd remember. At least to me. To describe, its flavor is very subtle, slightly earthy with a hint of a bean-like flavor. You want to dress it with a bit of soy sauce mixture. But its texture is quite sublime, silky and smooth to rival the softest tofu out there.

Do-to-ri is pronounced extreme, fast staccato. My niece used to say "Doe-toe-rhee" to make fun of people who spoke Korean with an American English accent. That was our code for "funny." Now I've made it an open secret.


ding said...

i am a bad filipina.
i can't remember the names of any of the desserts i'd eat when i was a kid, but i know the flavor you describe.

living in america, we're used to flavors slapping us in the face. what i love about the sweets from my mother's home is that they're interesting. bean-like, nutty, earthy, softly flavored. sort of dusty. it's a unique quality and taste.

(and my mom used to pick up dropped fruit all the time. i remember, in hawaii, shamelessly taking a paper bag and collecting all the fallen mangoes i could carry with my little sister while our mother walked in front of us, pointing out which ones to grab.)

Marc said...

I also feel pangs when I see trees full of unharvested fruit along the road (e.g., trees full of oranges, lemons or pears). In Los Angeles the group Fallen Fruit is creating maps of fruit trees that are on public land. The KCRW Good Food show on 11/12/05 had an interview with one of the members.

The Native Californians ate a lot of acorns, but only after a complex process of pounding and leaching to remove the bitterness and toxicity (tannins). See Oakland on the Move, Living Tree or California Indian Basketweavers Association for more details. I have not tried the acorn mush, but I hear that it is more or less tasteless. Many parks in California have "pounding rocks" with indentations that were formed by years of acorn mush making (e.g., Sunol in the Bay Area).

DJaxon said...

I ran across this site while looking up stuff in Wikipedia. I usually start with one subject and somehow and hour later end up at something completely different from what I started with. I couldn't help but smile while reading about how you were forced to pick random plants for dinner. Now that I'm older, I've come to appreciate the memories of stopping at some random hillside to pick Bracken Fern to make a Korean dish called Gosari. Sometimes I wish I could experience those days again. Thanks for helping me revive those memories. :)

Thea said...

I just recently discovered dotorimook and the Chinese version made with mung bean starch. I am a diabetic and always looking for new things that have less carbohydrates. The mook and bean jelly are still too high carb, but I was intrigued by the texture, and the blandness was an invitation for experiments. I discovered you can put sugar (in my case xylitol, a natural sugar alcohol) in the jelly with fruit flavors, even juice. Also I add a lot of almond flour - that makes the texture different, but it's nice and you can slice it and put it into stir fries and soup because it doesn't melt like gelatin. The jelly is so very easy to make. I don't know why it is not traditionally flavored - you can make it with almost any liquid. Also, it's not hard to grind and leach acorns - you pick them ripe, shell them, grind finely in a blender, cover with water in a jar, put in the refrigerator and keep pouring out the old water and putting in new water until the water is clear of tannin. It takes about a week. It's easier to my mind than making my own tofu, which I do. I also must say that as an American with only a tiy touch of Native American blood and nothing more exotic than French, German and Irish, I also pick roadside wild things from plants to herbs to mushrooms to the wild fruit. There is something very enjoyable about something for nothing!! Mustard makes delicious greens. I grow a garden, but still prize my wild findings.

Enjoyed reading people's comments here and the original about acorn jelly! Thanks so mch.


Anonymous said...

My sister has a girl from Korea on her tennis team. I was told she gathers acorns at every tournament they go to. Well that set me free. I have them all over my neighborhood and until I'd heard this thought of them only as a pestilance. Tomorrow my sister is taking her 10 pounds of them that I gathered up! I'm so excited, and have changed my whole acorn outlook.

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Urban Woodswalker said...

Its is very dangerous to eat the plants along the roadways. Pesticides, lead and other toxic pollutants from vehicles also make their way into the cellular structure of roadside plants. Even plants on hills below roads are subject to water run offs and toxicity.

Do not advocate collecting wild plants along roads. also, it is often illegal to collect in forest preserves. In my county, one can get a $500.00 fine and jail time if caught pulling or collecting anything. This goes for any types of plants..."weeds" included, in addition to nuts, seeds, flowers, or other plants.

Mary Anne
Cook County, Illinois