Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Cultural History: Wonton Soup

Ariel Chin

Wonton Soup

For as long as I can remember, one of the earliest and most occurring memories of me in the kitchen is being beside my dad folding traditional Chinese wontons. My dad would purchase fresh ingredients from the supermarket, carefully chopping up the supplies, and adding them into the mix in the perfect order. After cracking and whipping a few eggs into a bowl, my turn came in. I was taught young the precise folding of the wonton papers (or “blankets” as I called them) into little boats. I remember my mom and dad standing over me, my little hands, in theirs, repeating in my head to not forget, “ a spoonful of filling, fold into a triangle, and dab of egg on the edges, flip it around and upside down, then kiss the tips!” At first and in my earlier years my “boats” were lumpy and crooked, with egg or filling seeping out of the sides and corners coming undone. But I loved making wontons. I loved the way they had to be folded so carefully like food origami; I loved the feeling of standing next to my dad, joking around and learning; And the result after all the blankets have been used—being able to look upon all the little boats awaiting sail in a boiling pot of soup!
Translated from Cantonese, ‘wonton’ somes from “wahn tan” literally meaning “swallowing clouds” because of the way they look when floating in soup. Usually they are filled with a seasoned pork mixture, but sweet wontons stuffed with dates and figs also exist. The wonton originated in Guangzhou in the Ching Dynasty, but after World War II, it found it’s way over to Hong Kong where it became more popular. Up until the Song Dynasty (1127-1270), they were a food only for the rich, but now they are widely eaten by all and vary depending on the ingredients. For example, because Hong Kong is by the coast, many of the won tons are filled with shrimp and fish.
In other parts of China they are called huntun, meaning Chaos, a word used to describe the beginning of the world. They are traditionally eaten on the Winter Solace, December 22nd to remember and honor ancestors. According to legend, The Han Chinese are direct decendants of the Lord of Man, named Hundu so they devour this traditional dish in his namesake. Although wonton can be eaten for really any meal or snack whether boiled in soup or fried, it is traditionally eaten at dim sum, sort of a Chinese brunch. Dim sum originated as a Cantonese custom as a time put aside to relax and sip tea for travelers on the Silk Road. But it took years, for food to be added into this little break, as it was thought to be inappropriate to combine tea and food.
Today, won ton soup can be found all over the world, and many connections have been made from it to other cultures’ cuisine. It is mythed that Marco Polo had traveled to China in the 13th century, and was so fascinated and delighted that he brought the recipe back to Italy. Also similar is the traditional Russian dish of pelmeni, Siberian dumplings filled with meat, mushrooms, or potatoes.
For me, the traditional preperation of wontons and the history behind it, really connects me to my culture. Growing up third generation asian amerian, I can often see how I can lose sight of my culture through American media, technology, and other cultures. But being able to fold these little homemade sumpling in the kitchen with my dad, is something unique to my family and to who I am. It is also very significant to me because out family recipe originated from my dad’s grandma and his mother. I never knew my grandma on my dad’s side because she died when he was in college, but her special and individual recipe being passed down to me provides some kind of a connection. For us, we usually make a bunch of dumplings at one time, and stick them in plastic bags in the freezer so that we can eat them later for a quick meal or snack. Another personal family tradtion is on Christmas morning, we always eat warming wonton soup before while opening presents. And especially now, being a plane ride away from home, wonton soup is an excellent comfort food and reminder of my family and my culture.

Wonton Soup Recipe

18 - 24 won ton wrappers
1/2 pound boneless lean pork, chopped finely
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
a few drops sesame oil
1 teaspoon sherry
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 green onion, finely minced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 dashes of white pepper
Water for boiling won tons
4 1/2 - 5 cups chicken stock
green onion, thinly sliced, as desired
a few drops sesame oil (optional)
**NOTE: my grandma sometime put dried orange peels into her wonton dumplings for a little bit of a crunch and tangy flavor.

Combine all the filling ingredients in a bowl, mixing well. Lay one won ton skin in front of you. Cover the remaining won ton skins with a damp towel to keep them from drying out.
Place a heaping teaspoon of won ton filling in the center.
Fold the won ton wrapper in half lengthwise, making sure the ends meet. Press down firmly on the ends to seal. Use thumbs to push down on the edges of the filling to center it. Keeping thumbs in place, fold over the won ton wrapper one more time. Push the corners up and hold in place between your thumb and index finger. Wet the corners with your fingers. Bring the two ends together so that they overlap. Press to seal. The finished product should resemble a nurse's cap. Repeat with remaining won tons.

Alternate method: Place the teaspoon of filling in the middle of the wrapper and twist to seal. The final result should resemble a money bag or drawstring purse.

Boiling the won tons: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the won tons, making sure there is enough room for them to move about freely. Let the won tons boil for 5 - 8 minutes, until they rise to the top and the filling is cooked through. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon.

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