One of the most recognizable and loved symbols of Chinese cuisine, wontons are the pastry skins that are used to enclose a savoury filling, usually a mixture of pork and prawns (shrimp).
The name wonton is derived from the Cantonese wahn tan, which translates as "swallowing clouds", a reference to the wonton's shimmering, floating apperance when served in a bowl of steaming broth.
Elsewhere in China wontons are known by the Mandarin huntun,
meaning "chaos". Throughout Northern China wontons are traditionally consumed on the Winter solstice (December 22nd). This is the day that ancestors are remembered and paid homage to. Legend has it that the lord of man, hundu or chaos is the great ancestor of the Han Chinese and so huntun, his namesake are consumed as a mark of respect.¹
Wonton's place in Chinese society and culture has changed dramatically during the last millenium. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) wontons were exclusively the fare of aristocracy and the upper classes. These days wontons are are close to ubiquitous in China and know no class boundries. Wontons are always considered a snack, never a meal or course unto themselves and are served in two styles. Firstly cooked in the aforementioned soup, but also simply steamed and served with a dipping sauce accompaniment. Usually black or red vinegar enlivened with a little shredded ginger. Deep fried wontons served with a bright red, sweet sauce are a curiosity known only in the west.
Wonton skins or wrappers are quite easy to find in Asian groceries the world over. They are sold in small packets containing 30 - 50 wrappers, which are square and roughly 8 cm (3 in) across. They have a dull yellow/beige appearance due to the use of egg in the dough. The ingredients for wonton wrappers are almost identical to that of fresh pasta, the only difference is that wonton dough uses less egg and includes water to make up the moisture difference.
Very closely related to wonton wrappers are Shanghai wonton skins and gau gee wrappers. These differ by the lack of egg in the dough and have boiling, rather than room temperature water mixed with flour to make the dough. The use of boiling water has a two-fold effect. It helps to develop the gluten present in the flour even more than would be achieved by simply kneading. This results in a silky smooth dough that ends up slightly transparent when steamed. Shanghai wontons skins are mainly used for war tip or pot-sticker dumplings. These are very similar to the Japanese Gyoza. They are exactly the same shape as regular wonton skins, but are slightly paler due to the lack of egg. Gau gee wrappers are used in the eponymous dumpling and other dumplings such as har gua. They are roughly the same size as wonton skins but are round in shape.
Apart from the traditional Chinese uses for wonton wrappers, I have found them to be a handy kitchen-cheat's ingredient for a couple of Western dishes as well.
Firstly, you can use fresh wonton skins to make shortcut ravioli, saving you the effort of making your own pasta. Make a ravioli filling of your choice. Lay out the wonton wrappers on a well floured workbench. Place a little filling onto the centre of a wonton skin. Moisten the edges with a little eggwash (an egg beaten with some water and salt) then top with another wonton skin. Press the edges to expel any air pockets and make a tight seal. You now have a raviolo. Continue until you have many ravioli and cook in plenty of salted boiling water for 3-4 minutes. These can be frozen until required. Cook straight from the freezer, allowing a few extra minutes cooking time.
Another trick is to use crisply fried wonton wrappers as a base for tasty hors d'oeuvre. Simply cut the wonton skins into quarters, then shallow fry a few at a time in plain vegetable oil until they puff up and are golden and crunchy. Drain well and store in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Top these with some smoked salmon or gin cured salmon, a dollop of horseradish cream and a frond of dill. The crispy wontons provide a delightful textural counterpoint.
Here are a few recipes for wonton fun that you can try at home.
Almost nobody makes wonton wrappers at home, even in China, as they are so cheap and readily available, but if you can't find wonton wrappers or you are a total kitchen masochist, here is a recipe.
- 1 egg
- 6 Tbs (100 ml) water
- 225 g (1/2 lb) plain (all purpose) flour
- extra flour for dusting
Beat the egg and water together. Place the sifted flour into a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the egg mix and mix well with chopsticks. Turn out onto a well floured workbench and knead the dough until it is silky smooth. Wrap in cling film and leave in the refrigerator for half an hour.
You can roll this dough out with a pasta machine. If you own one have a look at how to roll out fresh pasta. Alternatively, roll the dough out, using extra flour until it is as thin as you can possibly get it. Cut into 8 cm (3 in) squares, flour well and cover tightly until ready to use.
Wonton filling (siew mai)
This is an all purpose filling for wonton dumplings. This can be used for steamed dumplings that you would find at yum cha, siew mai, or boiled and added to wonton soup.
Drain the mushrooms and squeeze out the excess water. Remove the stem and discard as it is inedible. Finely slice the caps and place in a large bowl. Finely chop the prawns and add to the bowl along with all the remaining ingredients. Mix very thoroughly with your hands to combine the flavours and make the filling a little sticky.
Place a little of the filling into the centre of a wonton wrapper. Moisten the edges with a little water and gather up the sides to form a little parcel. Press well to make a tight seal. Continue until you run out of wontons or filling. These can be place in an oiled steamer and steamed for 10 minutes, or until cooked through. Serve with some Chinese black or red rice vinegar mixed with a little grated ginger, or simply soy sauce.
This has to be one of the most wholesome and nourishing soups on the planet. It is the essence of simplicity. A clear, flavoursome chicken broth enlivened with slippery wontons. Garnished simply with sliced green onions and a few drops of sesame oil. The whole is way beyond the sum of its parts.
- 1 kg (2 lb) chicken bones
- 3 litres water
- 1/2 bunch green onions (scallions), chopped
- 5 cm piece of ginger, sliced
- 10 black peppercorns
- 250 ml (1 cup) shaoxing rice wine
- 30 wontons (siew mai) from the above recipe
- 1/2 cup green onions, finely sliced
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 Tbs sea salt
- Soy sauce
Wash the chicken bones thoroughly. Place in a stock pot with the water, 1/2 bunch of green onions, ginger, wine and peppercorns. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook for 1 hour, then strain into a large container. Discard the bones. Cool the stock and place in the refrigerator overnight. Next day skim off the fat that has risen to the surface and strain the soup again through your finest sieve. Bring to the simmer and season with the sea salt and some soy sauce to taste.
Bring another pot of water to the boil and cook the wontons for 4-5 minutes. Lift out and divide between 6 warm bowls. Cover with the hot soup and scatter over the sliced green onions and a few drops of sesame oil.
¹ Thanks to gak for informing me that huntun does not mean chaos at all - it simply refers to the wonton itself. My research was off regarding the ancestor of the Han Chinese as well. This was either pangu or huangdi. Thanks also to gak for corrections to my Mandarin characters.