Saturday, February 6, 2010

Our Family's Wontons

Our Family's Wontons
Home Cooking

When I go out to a Chinese eatery, I almost never order wontons. It's not because I don't like them - much the contrary. In my opinion, wontons are, like spring rolls and other hand-made items, something that is very 'personal to the family'. I'm not sure if that even makes sense and you gotta excuse any lack of coherence because I haven't slept well for 'n' days.

Wonton soldiers ready for the boil

What I'm trying to say is that my family has always made wontons a certain way, combining traditional Shanghai flavors with our own taste preferences developed over the generations. These are Shanghai wontons. If I travel further North or South, the filling, size, soup and even serving style will start to vary.

Not only that but as I said, even with different families there is variation in how wontons are made.

In Shanghai, there are 2 main types of wontons. 'Little wontons' are not much more than a bit of pork filling (when I say 'bit', I mean a tiny, tiny amount) dabbed in the center of a wonton wrapper and the whole thing is then scrunched up. This is then boiled and served in chicken stock or sometimes, a very flavorsome fried onion soup called 'thousand flavors soup'. Little wontons are a breakfast or snack item. When my mum makes them at home, she likes to use chicken mince (or perhaps, I like them made with chicken mince and she just obliges me).

Boiled and drained bok choi

'Big wontons' are, as the name suggests, bigger than their small counterparts. The filling can vary between regions but we make them with a combination of pork mince, bok choi, shitake mushrooms and this other vegetable called qi cai which is a bit like a weed (English name 'Shepherds purse', sold in frozen packets in some Asian grocers).

Fresh prawns

Sometimes, we'll add some prawns too and everything is seasoned with a bit of cooking wine, soy sauce, white pepper, chicken stock and chicken stock powder. The filling is spooned into the wonton wrappers and folded into the traditional shape.

This is a full-family affair. My parents make and adjust the filling. They tend not to know exact quantities and everything comes down to experience.

Filling before it's mashed

I've been chasing a recipe for these wontons for several months now but when I remind them I want quantities and figures for my blog, they give me a funny look. If I manage something a bit more definitive, I'll post it on here (added note: read end of this post for more info). The meat:vegetable ratio is important. The recent batch of wontons was too vegetable-heavy (dad's silly request) and it completely compromised the texture of the filling.

When it comes to wrapping, dad's role is to spoon the mixture into the wrappers whilst mum and I wrap. The three of us going at once is a lot like a full-speed production line. Good fun.

Usually, the wontons are boiled in batches. We start by wrapping 3 and boiling those so that we can try the filling and adjust the seasoning as necessary. After all of them are wrapped, they're boiled in lots of ~ 10-15. The method my parents use is to bring the wontons to the boil and then topping up the saucepan with a cup or so of cold water. Once they water comes to the boil again, the wontons are ready. Another indicator is that they'll start to float.

Soupy wontons for slurping

Whilst the wontons are boiling, we prepare the stock for the soup. We usually keep it simple by just having a bit of chicken soup with white pepper, chopped shallots and a bit of sesame oil.

Cold wontons for dipping

On hot days, you can serve the wontons drained and cooled and dip them in light soy and/or chili oil. I personally prefer the soup version.

My parents used to make HUGE batches of wontons and then freeze them in bags of 10. They make for an awesome snack/meal. Don't defrost them before boiling because as they defrost, the wrappers start to get stuck together. Simply cook the same way as before but be aware that it'll take a bit longer.

My family's wontons are one of my favorite food items and is typical of try 'comfort food'. When I first moved out of home, it was one of the things I requested for my mum to make. For me, it's not just about the wontons themselves but also the process of making them which for us has always involved the whole family. I have a heap of memory associations with wontons. When I go back to China, the plane trip there will be bad enough to make me dread the plane trip back. I really dislike flights. So, the lunch or dinner before I'm due to head back to Brisbane, my stomach will already be queasy thinking about how nauseous I'll be on the plane and there won't be a lot of food I can keep down. My grandparents will then serve a simple meal of wontons which are light and easy to digest but still very nutritious.

It's one of my great shames not knowing how to cook many (or ANY) traditional Shanghai dishes. My defense is that I don't really know how to cook OTHER types of cuisine either - I just haven't had a lot of opportunity to prepare meals. If I'm only capable of reproducing a few dishes in my lifetime (due to stupidity, lack of talent, time or whatever), our wonton recipe is something I'd like to learn and pass on.

I asked dad for quantities and this is his reply (with the typos corrected):
Hi Cora,

Chinese style cooking is not really scientific. It's all about feeling. Honestly I don't know exactly what is the recipe and quantities of ingredients. It is really flexible. BUT, basic things are:

1) About 3 parts of fresh bok choi. After put them into hot boiling water, they shrink quite a lot. If you can find some good quality of frozen qi cai, you can add 1 part as well. In that case you have to reduce bok choi portion to 2 parts.
2)About 1-1.5 part fresh pork mince.
3)About 0.5 part prawn meat. You can mince them or put one prawn in one wonton.
4)0.2 part of dry mushroom. Using hot water to soak them first.

You may find my recipe quite different from your mum
Then came my mother's 2 cents:

Can I add some thing to your description about wontons? In Shanghai, the small wonton are usually served in two types of soups 1) pork-bone soup 2) chicken soup. Egg peels which are cut in slices can be added together with finely shopped shalots (chong). People are more appeciate the slippery and soft wonton wrappers in the tasty soup than the fillings.

The cold large wontons are usually served in summer. The wontons are sauced before serve ( not dipped into sauce). The sauce are made of: soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanut paste, and sesame oil. The way your daddy eats wontons is not typical.

The fillings of normal large wontons are varied. The typical fillings are:

1. Pork mince with qi cai
2. Pork mince only (sometimes with dried mushroom)
3. Chicken mince only
4. Shrimp mince only

The most favorite one is 1)




  1. I love eating and making wontons. I never get the quantities right either. There's always either a bit of the filling left or a bit of the wrappers left. I think it comes with practice. Oh you can also shallow fry the wontons in some oil - if they were frozen, just lightly steam them first.

  2. Hi cinnamobus! Oh yes I know the type you're talking about. We call them Mao Er Dwor (literal translation = 'cat's ears'). Usually the base is fried to a crisp whilst the top remains soft. I like them dipped in dark vinegar.

  3. oh yum, wontons!! I love them. I've made dumplings once, but never tried my hand at wontons. They are such a small bite of deliciousness...I think I might make some on the weekend! Thanks for sharing the recipe