Wednesday, 11 August 2010
Even though I've lived in a college residence with a kitchen for two years, I only started cooking regularly last year. At first I was really nervous about doing anything in the kitchen and I usually demanded Mike's presence so he could supervise me in case anything went horribly wrong. Eventually I began to trust myself in the kitchen more, although when I cook meals they tend to be one-course meals that contain all or most of the food groups, nothing like family-style Chinese meals. My meals also tended to be stuff that was easy to make, like pasta (boil noodles, add stuff to premade sauce, add sauce to noodles - tada!), curry (boil potatoes and meat with premade curry block - tada!), or congee (boil rice - tada!). Tasty though these simple meals were, I always missed genuine Chinese food (sorry Orient Express, you just don't satisfy). When I went home this summer, I asked my grandmother to teach me how she made her wontons. If I want to learn Chinese cooking, I have to start somewhere, and wontons are pretty easy to make!
Wontons (雲吞) are soup dumplings. This means they are most commonly served with soup, sometimes plain, sometimes with noodles and other additions. They can also be deep fried. They are not usually pan fried - jiaozi are better suited for that because they have thicker skins. There are regional variations, but below is the recipe that I grew up eating.
- Several leaves of napa cabbage
- Green onion
- Soy sauce
- Sesame oil
- Ginger (I ran out of fresh, so I used ground)
- 1 Egg
- 1/2 lb ground chicken or pork
During my quest for dumpling ingredients in Pittsburgh, the hardest thing to find was surprisingly the ground pork. I thought it would be the skins. Apparently Americans don't use ground pork much in cooking. I had to go to four different supermarkets before I could find any ground pork, and I ended up buying it from Wholey's, which specializes in all kinds of fresh meat.
You can also use bok choy in lieu of napa cabbage. I actually prefer it because it looks nicer. Napa is rather colorless, so when you eat the dumpling, the inside looks like a boring pink-brown mass. Bok choy gives the meat flecks of dark green color. In my opinion there isn't much of a taste difference though.
As for skins, the ones I bought were Shanghai style. The thinner the skins are the better they taste, but the harder they are to wrap, because thin skins rip more easily. Hong Kong ones are yellow because (I think?) they add egg to it. Make sure the skins you buy are for wontons, which means they should be square. Round skins are for jiaozi. You can also make skins yourself by mixing flour and water, but it takes FOREVER. I'm really bad at it.
Other things that we occasionally add to wontons are chives, shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms.
The most time-consuming step other than wrapping the wontons is mincing the vegetables. I started with the napa cabbage. I made cuts along the length of the leaves, then chopped along the width. After that I hacked wildly at the cabbage to get it really fine.
When I use bok choy instead of cabbage, I boil the leaves first before chopping. Make sure to drain as much water from the leaves as possible if you do this.
Now for the green onion. Same mincing treatment. This time with the added bonus of tears. Do not add the tears to your dumpling mix.
Time to mix everything together!
First the chicken...
And then everything else, because I got too lazy to take intermediary pictures. The egg helps the filling cohere. I added one tablespoon of sesame oil and three tablespoons of soy sauce. At home I use one tablespoon of light and one tablespoon of dark, but in Pittsburgh we didn't have light and dark soy sauce. As for the ginger, I just shook it in until I figured it was enough. If you use fresh ginger, that is another ingredient to be minced.
Mmm, smells good. Don't eat it though. Unless you like salmonella.
Time to wrap. Make sure you have a bowl of water handy to help with adhesion of wonton edges.
Put filling in the center. Start small; if you put too much the dumpling gets harder to wrap. Then line the top edges of the wonton skin with water. Just dip your finger in the water bowl and dab it on.
Fold in half. Press on the edges to seal them. Make sure there aren't air pockets inside.
Then, dab the bottom left corner of the folded wonton with water. Fold the top down toward you.
This is the tricky part. I had only one free hand so I couldn't take a good picture. Twist the wonton so that the back side of the right corner meets the front side of the left corner (where you just dabbed water). Press it a little to make sure it holds.
Tada! You now have a wonton. Don't stress too much if it's folded improperly. Even if it's poorly folded, it'll probably still hold together when you boil it, and that's really all that counts. They taste delicious either way. I stored the wontons on a piece of wax paper, lightly floured (so they don't stick), on top of a baking tray.
After you get the hang of it, folding wontons becomes kind of meditative. In no time at all you will have filled up an entire tray. Hopefully you will have used up all your skins, because they dry out and get hard and become nigh unusable.
Wontons taste best when they're freshly wrapped. Boil them until they float and then serve with soup. My favorite soup to have wontons with is clear chicken broth with green onions, and hot sauce on the side. You can also have them without soup, and dip them in condiments like sacha sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, hot sauce...
If you made too many to finish in one sitting, just freeze the wontons. First freeze them on whatever tray you put them on. Then, after they are hard, you can store them more conveniently in ziplocks. They have to be frozen before storing in bags, otherwise they will stick together in the bag and come apart when you boil them. There is no need to thaw frozen wontons before boiling.