What is it about the humble little wonton that is so darn irresistible? Whether boiled and served in a broth, steamed and accompanied by chili sauce, or deep fried and loaded on a dim sum cart, this dumpling really knows how to get around.
Even in China, where the wonton originated, each region has a different take on this traditional food. In Guangdong, from where Cantonese food hails, wontons are most often served in a soup with noodles. Their name — wàhn tān — literally translates as “swallowing clouds.” In the Sichuan province, spicy red oil wontons make the most of the regions’ little chāo shǒu — or crossed hands — dumplings. In Shanghai, the size of the wonton is especially important, with larger wontons served for main meals and smaller wontons served at breakfast or as a light lunch.
Within China, coastal cities tend to mix seafood into their wontons, while land-locked provinces use pork and, to a lesser degree, vegetables in their fillings. The Great Wall may have stopped marauding hordes from entering ancient China, but it did little to halt the wonton’s migration out of the country. There are Korean variations, Filipino variations, Indonesian variations…there is even crab rangoon, a fried crab-and-cheese stuffed wonton that likely originated in the U.S., becoming popular with folks of my grandparents’ generation when they treated themselves to a Polynesian-style night on the town at Trader Vics circa 1956.
This diversity makes the wonton ideal for the Stout Sprout kitchen. These dumplings provide a kid-friendly introduction to Chinese food and culture and are easily adapted without compromising the authenticity of the dish. I particularly like having control over the ingredients so I know what is in our wontons and what isn’t — and for people like me with MSG sensitivities, this means wontons can be enjoyed without fear of waking up the next morning with a headache.
We went the meat and veggie route when we made ours, adapting a pork and shrimp won ton recipe recently published in the New York Times. Our version added sautéed leeks and grated carrot (some super-sweet ones from Chickadee Creek Farm that we purchased at the Slow Food New Jersey Winter Farmer’s Market). We also toned down the spices. The hubby and I found we can always drag out a bottle of Sriracha or chili oil for ourselves, which is imminently preferable to listening to our six- and three-year-olds complain, in voices far too high pitched, about how their mouths are on fire.
This filling comes together in a flash. If you use prepared wonton wrappers you’ll be stuffing and folding before you know it. Speaking of which, our girls surprised me by quickly mastering the art of the wonton fold. And just as I was about to pat myself on the back for doing a good job immersing the girls in Chinese culture at this meal, Daughter 2 piped up to inform me that she thought each little folded wonton looked like a mini tiara. She even held one over her head to illustrate the point. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, one person’s tiara is another’s Phoenix crown. But we need not go there today.
This was a fun recipe from start to finish. Everyone participated in both making it and eating it and we had a surplus of wontons which we’ve frozen for another day. That is, if I can ward off the marauding hordes beating down our door to get at these tasty treats.
Pork and Shrimp Wontons with Leeks and Carrots
2 teaspoons grapeseed or canola oil
1 leek, well washed to remove any grit, stalk sliced up the middle and white and light green parts thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and grated on a box grater
1/2 pound ground pork (you want some fat in the mix, so 80%/20% is a pretty good ratio if you have a choice)
1/2 pound medium shrimp, thawed, shelled and deveined, and then sliced down the middle and chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dry sherry or Chinese rice wine
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 package wonton wrappers
1 egg, beaten
Cornstarch, to dust finished wontons and keep them from sticking
1 small head of baby bok choy, sliced into 1/2 inch slices
A small (1/2 inch) slice of fresh ginger
8 cups chicken broth, homemade if you have it
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh cilantro leaves for garnish
Sriracha hot sauce or chili oil for serving
Soy sauce for serving
Begin by heating the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and carrots and sauté for 5 – 10 minutes, or until softened. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, scallions, sherry, soy sauce, sugar, grated ginger, garlic, and cooled leek and carrot mixture. Mix well (your hands work best for this, so you can work the flavors throughout). Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour. This mixture can be made and refrigerated up to one day in advance.
To make the wontons, lay out about eight wonton wrappers on a work surface very lightly dusted with cornstarch (a small sieve with a teaspoon of cornstarch works well for this). Place a small amount of the pork and shrimp mixture (1 teaspoon) in the center of one of the wrappers. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the egg wash along the outer sides of the wrapper and then fold it over into a triangle, enclosing the filling. The egg wash will act as a glue along the seams. Pinch the seams so that no filling escapes, and then bring the two corners at the bottom together, adding a dab more egg wash if necessary and pinching to adhere (this is the “crossed hands” wonton technique). As Daughter 1 observed, you should have something that now roughly resembles a small tiara. Place the finished wonton on a baking sheet lightly dusted with corn starch.
Continue filling and folding wontons until all of your filling is used up, sporadically stopping to very lightly dust the finished wontons with corn starch to keep them from sticking to one another. You should be able to make between 40 and 50 wontons with this quantity of filling. Refrigerate the wontons until ready to use. If it is taking you a long time to fill and fold your wontons, consider moving any of the finished wontons to the refrigerator while you fill and fold the rest. You can also place the bowl holding your filing into a larger bowl filled with ice. This will prevent the filling from sitting out too long and spoiling.
When you are ready to serve the wontons, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the wontons to the boiling water and cook until they float to the surface — 3 – 5 minutes* (if they are sticking to the bottom of the pot, agitate the wontons very carefully with a spoon until they come loose). Don’t over-crowd the pot, and cook the wontons in batches if necessary. Remove the wontons from the the boiling water using a slotted spoon or spider and place them on a large, clean plate.
While the wontons are cooking, heat the chicken stock in a second pot. Bring it to a simmer and add the slice of ginger. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes, and then add the bok choy. When the greens have wilted and the bok choy stem is tender-crisp, remove the ginger and discard it.
To serve, place 4 to 5 cooked wontons in a serving bowl and ladle the chicken broth and some bok choy over and around the wontons. Sprinkle with cilantro, and pass the chili sauce and soy sauce separately, to be drizzled over the wontons as desired.
Alternatively, you may choose to serve your wontons plain, without the chicken broth and bok choy. In that case, place several boiled wontons on a small plate and pass condiments like chili oil, hot sauce, sliced scallions or soy sauce.
Serves: 8, with some leftover wontons.
* NOTE: If you will not be serving all the wontons you have made, freeze any remaining UNCOOKED wontons in a zip top bag. Do not boil them before freezing them. Also, try to keep them from touching one another in the zip top bag while they freeze. That way you’ll be able to easily pull out just the number you need for your next meal. To cook frozen wontons, boil them in rapidly-boiling water until they float to the surface, and then allow them to cook for one additional minute or so before removing them with a slotted spoon or spider. Proceed as above.
Kid rating: three-and-a-half stars, though the entire meal got bonus points for getting both girls involved with making the wontons. Daughter 1 was a fan, though she pulled hers out of the broth to eat them. Daughter 2 nibbled, but has somehow convinced herself she “doesn’t like dumplings.” Go figure.
Parent rating: four stars. Maybe four-and-a-half. Both my husband and I went back for seconds, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that we have the remainder frozen for quick lunches or suppers. Both my husband and I would have liked a little more character in our dumplings…more ginger, or a hit of red pepper flakes. But since that wouldn’t have gone over very well with our girls, we toned them down a bit, pulled out the Sriracha, and enjoyed the result of our adventure in Chinese cooking.