The Washington Post

The Korean table’s bounty in one tray

Manna Dosirak packs flavor into satisfying geometric packages

- BY TIM CARMAN

Television has a way of creating desire for things that might otherwise generate only curiosity or just nostalgia. I was reminded of this recently while researchin­g dosirak, the Korean equivalent of a Japanese bento box. Numerous Youtubers and bloggers, some too young to remember when kids toted these lunchboxes to school in Korea, have re-created the dosirak from “Squid Game,” that dark class-warfare series disguised as a children’s game.

James Cho, co-founder of Manna Dosirak in Kingman Park, doesn’t need a Netflix show to spur his imaginatio­n. He grew up with dosiraks as a boy in Iksan.

His mom would pack him a lunch for school. It would naturally vary from day to day but might include rice, kimchi, anchovies and fried egg. He called it a “bento,” perhaps because, as some suggest, dosiraks were influenced by Japan during its brutal occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. (Others, I should note, argue that dosiraks predate Japan’s culture war on its neighbor.)

However the dish evolved, South Korea has been experienci­ng a flush of nostalgia for dosiraks, a trend that started before the pandemic. Maybe the nostalgia influenced Cho, too, but the way the owner explains it, he and

his wife, Jenny, were merely searching for ways to keep their business afloat in February 2020, just as the pandemic was preparing to settle in for the long haul. They had already tried their hand at tacos (Far East Taco Grille with their son, Alex) and burgers (the short-lived K Burger). Dosiraks were their latest play.

As the son of a civil engineer who valued precision and organizati­on, I’ve always loved the compact architectu­re of a bento box. Every element in its place, no cross-contaminat­ion of flavors, the lunchbox equivalent of mental compartmen­talization, that coping mechanism we all need to get through this thing called life. The dosiraks at Manna have a similar geometry to bento boxes, so I’m naturally predispose­d to embrace their presentati­on.

Manna is basically a two-person operation: James and Jenny, both in their early 60s, prep, cook and package almost everything that comes out of their compact kitchen. They have their system down. It relies a lot on cross-utilizatio­n, so that any one of the available proteins can be the featured ingredient in a box (a separate menu category in Manna’s world), bibimbap or dosirak. If you select a dosirak, you’ll receive a tray neatly packed with rice, protein, banchan sides, mandu and maybe even a long, slender piece of fried shrimp draped across the top, all for $15.50 or less. I’ve paid more for appetizers that delivered less satisfacti­on.

James and Jenny are selftaught cooks. If you ask James how he learned a certain technique, he will frequently provide a two-word answer: the internet. I mention this because James’s facility with shrimp demonstrat­es a skill level that belies his lack of formal training. Every morning, he takes a box of shrimp — dozens and dozens of them — and removes their shells, makes strategic knife cuts and pulls each crustacean into a ramrod-straight stick. He proceeds to bread and freeze each shrimp before frying them. When you bite into this stick, your first pleasure is the crunch, loud and crackly, before you even experience the clean, nutty flavors of the shellfish.

Jenny is tasked with making the bibimbap sauce, a seriously fine condiment that combines gochujang, sugar, garlic and an unlikely American stowaway — Sprite soda — that adds an element of … what exactly? I can’t pinpoint it, but I also can’t stop applying the sauce to almost everything at Manna, far beyond the superb marinated beef for the bibimbap bowl. It’s not just the heat, this steady throb of chilepeppe­r capsaicin. It’s the way the condiment clings to an ingredient and drags it down a deep umami hole.

As with the bibimbap, some dishes are not complete until you douse them with sauce. This is particular­ly true for the pork and chicken cutlets, which are encrusted with panko and fried to a thick, arid consistenc­y, with no discernibl­e personalit­y. The cutlets come alive only with one of the housemade sauces, whether Jenny’s bibimbap or James’s sweet alternativ­e, a condiment cooked down from Worcesters­hire, sugar, ketchup and water. Personally, I’ ll always opt for the path less sweetened.

Other proteins, whether the spicy stir-fried pork or the sweetand-sour chicken, can be enjoyed with little to no assistance. Same goes for the soondubu jjigae, which the Chos added to the menu last fall. The spicy tofu stew may not compare to the gold standard at Tosokchon in Annandale, but it holds a space for those familiar reciprocal forces: the sting of chile flake, the balm of silken tofu.

With dosirak, the bounty of the traditiona­l Korean table shrinks to a single tray, but at least you don’t have to share your banchan with anyone. You can savor the kimchi cabbage, the shredded radish or the yellow corn with cheese all by yourself, appreciati­ng how the funk, spice, sweetness and acid interact with your main dish. It’s a trade-off, I’d suggest, for those days when you’ve hit your limit on human interactio­n. Dosirak is a table for one, the antidote to a world full of shared plates.

Even the interior of Manna doesn’t invite much socializat­ion. There are only a handful of metal stools positioned next to narrow tables, which are either mounted on the wall or facing backlit shelves decorated with figurines and Korean ingredient­s. But even with the cramped quarters and uncomforta­ble chairs, I might be tempted to linger if it weren’t for one other element in the room: the childlike music, a happy whistle-like melody that plays on an endless loop. After about 20 minutes, you feel like you’ve been sentenced to the It’s a Small World Ride at Disney World for the rest of your life.

Manna isn’t aiming to be the Happiest Place on Earth, of course. Its pleasures are smaller, more intimate, personal, and that’s just fine with me.

 ?? ?? TOP: Dosiraks featuring pork and shrimp, left, and fried chicken at Manna Dosirak.
TOP: Dosiraks featuring pork and shrimp, left, and fried chicken at Manna Dosirak.
 ?? Photos by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post ?? LEFT: Owners Jenny and James Cho work together in the restaurant’s small kitchen.
Photos by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post LEFT: Owners Jenny and James Cho work together in the restaurant’s small kitchen.
 ?? ?? TOP: The bulgogi manna bibimbap includes Korean mixed rice with lettuce, shredded radish, shredded carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, fried egg, sesame oil, sesame seeds and green onion.
TOP: The bulgogi manna bibimbap includes Korean mixed rice with lettuce, shredded radish, shredded carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, fried egg, sesame oil, sesame seeds and green onion.
 ?? ?? ABOVE: The exterior of Manna Dosirak in Kingman Park.
ABOVE: The exterior of Manna Dosirak in Kingman Park.
 ?? Photos by DEB LINDSEY for THE WASHINGTON POST ?? LEFT: Bulgogi cooked over a flame.
Photos by DEB LINDSEY for THE WASHINGTON POST LEFT: Bulgogi cooked over a flame.

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