Kathy is a DC-based Cooking Club member. In this recipe-essay, she shares about the special role that food, and specifically wontons, has played in her and her family's lives.
by Kathy Chan
I come from a Chinese American family. My father immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong to attend school in Louisiana, and my mother followed soon after. They later relocated to North Carolina, where my sister and I were born and raised. Growing up, my parents cooked traditional Cantonese food for our family, along with dishes influenced by the local Southern cuisine, like gumbo, fried fish, and barbecue meats. Thus, I grew up with a uniquely Chinese American culinary palate. Because I watched my parents pick out vegetables at the Asian grocery store so much throughout my childhood, I can now probably point out more variations of Chinese leafy greens than the average American (there are tons!). And because local Southern produce, like okra, sweet potatoes, and collard greens, were also readily available to me throughout my childhood, I also find myself returning to those as a source of comfort and nostalgia.
Kathy and her sister as kids in Hong Kong
This recipe is inspired by my mother’s wontons, but I can’t say that it’s “accurate” - it’s almost impossible to capture my mother’s intuitive cooking and sense of measurement precisely. A lot of my own Cantonese cooking consists of trying to figure out the English name for Cantonese dish, perusing the internet and various cookbooks to find said recipe, remembering various tidbits of my mother’s advice and techniques throughout the process, and making it all somehow work in the end! To be honest, I really wasn’t interested in my parents’ cooking for most of my childhood, and I really didn’t pick up cooking until my early adulthood. Yet, through every dish I make, I find myself amazed at how much I absorbed from my mother.
A bag of homemade wontons in the freezer is a message of love. When I arrive at my parents’ home for a weekend visit, and I see a bag of freshly made wontons in the freezer, it’s a message from my mother. When I’m sick, and I receive a delivery of a week’s worth of wontons at my door, it’s a message from my partner. When I’m not in the mood to cook, that old bag of wontons in my freezer is a message from my former self. They’re all the same message, really: I made these for you. I care about you. I want you to eat something warm, nostalgic, and nourishing.
This is a recipe for Cantonese or Hong Kong-style wontons, which use a thin, silky egg wrapper, rather than the classic flour wrapper used for dumplings or Shanghai-style wontons. The Cantonese ‘wonton’ comes from a poetic Chinese phrase which means “swallowing clouds,” an ode to the delicate, wispy ends of the wontons as they float in a bowl of soup. The thin, slightly translucent egg wrapper allows the wonton to have a uniquely wrinkled and sometimes colorful appearance, and a silky smooth texture for seamless slurps. They are delicious, comforting, and the perfect springboard for creativity! I hope you find your own sense of joy and comfort in making these wontons.
This recipe is easily modifiable for different dietary preferences and restrictions, and I encourage you to measure with your heart and be creative with different substitutions and add-ins for the filling. I’ve included cilantro and green onions as necessary ingredients because I think they add freshness and a wonderful variegated color. I’ve also added a list of other optional add-ins that I’ve experimented with in the past.
Cantonese-Style Shrimp & Cilantro Wontons
This recipe makes about 6 dozen wontons, which is about 2 big freezer bags. Generally, a serving of wontons for one person ranges from 6 to 12 wontons, depending on how hungry you are!
- 1 lb ground pork, chicken, or turkey
- I typically use 80% lean pork or chicken, but you can go leaner if desired!
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- 1 ½ tsp sugar
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- ¼ tsp white pepper
- 2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 2 tsp oil
- 1 tbsp water
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 12 oz shrimp, chopped
- 1 bunch of cilantro, chopped, AND/OR
- 4-6 green onions, finely chopped
- 1 pack of wonton wrappers
- Look for square yellow wonton wrappers in a square-shaped package. The branding is commonly green/red and may indicate that it is “Hong Kong style.” You may also see a pack of thicker, white wonton wrappers – this is NOT the correct type of wrapper for this recipe.
Optional add-ins to experiment with:
- Handful of shiitake mushrooms (fresh or dried), finely chopped
- Dried shiitake mushrooms add a nice umami flavor. They just need to be rehydrated (in a container with water overnight, or with hot water for several hours).
- Ground ginger
- Garlic powder
- Rice vinegar
- Hoisin sauce
Steps for assembling and freezing wontons:
- Prepare ingredients. Defrost and roughly chop shrimp (into three or four pieces per shrimp). Rinse and chop the cilantro. I like to include up to half of the stems, but you can adjust based on how much you like cilantro.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground meat, salt, sugar, sesame oil, white pepper, Shaoxing wine, oil, water, and cornstarch in a bowl, either with your hands or in a food processor. The combined mixture should look and feel like a paste. Fold in the cilantro, green onions, and chopped shrimp.
- Assemble the wontons. Fill a small bowl with water and set to the side. Take a wonton wrapper and either hold it in the palm of your hand, or lay it flat on a surface. Rotate the wrapper so that it appears as a diamond. Add about a teaspoon of filling to the center, and make sure you include at least one piece of shrimp in every dollop. Dip your finger in the bowl of water, and line the top two edges of the wrapper with water. Fold the bottom of the wrapper up to create a triangle, pressing to seal the edges. Bring the outer two corners of the triangle together, and press again to seal. Continue until you have used all of your filling.
- If this is your first time folding, don’t worry about making your wontons look perfect! Just try to get a clean seal, and try not to break or rip the wrapper. Even messy folds will still turn into nice, wispy wontons once boiled.
To serve immediately:
- Add several wontons to boiling water, until the filling is cooked through and they float, or for about 5-7 minutes. Drain and serve (see below for different options).
To freeze and serve later:
- Option 1: Line wontons on a large flat surface, like a rack, baking sheet, or cutting board that can fit in your freezer temporarily. Leave some space between each wonton so that they do not stick or freeze together - it’s okay if a few of them are stuck together, as they’ll likely come apart when heated. You can also stack multiple surfaces of wontons to create a “shelf” if needed.
- Option 2: If you don’t have space in your freezer for a large horizontal surface, you can also place the wontons in a freezer bag or large tupperware container lined with wax or parchment paper. Leave some space between each wonton so that they do not stick or freeze together. You can “ribbon” your wax or parchment paper for each “layer” of wontons that you store in the container.
- Place the wontons in the freezer and let freeze for a few hours. Once frozen, you can add the wontons into another freezer bag or container for longer storage, up to a few months. This method prevents the wontons from sticking together in the freezer. To serve later, simply add the frozen wontons to boiling water and boil until the filling is cooked through and they float, or for about 6-8 minutes.
Options for Serving:
- Wontons can be served in a variety of mediums! For a warm and comforting dish, you can place them in a bowl of broth, with wonton noodles and some blanched Chinese vegetables, like boy choy, gai lan, or yu choy. For a savory and spicy side dish, you can top them with black vinegar, chili oil, and scallions. For a more refreshing spring dish, you can top with a scallion or herb oil, and chopped scallions and other herbs.
You can follow Kathy on all her foodie adventures at @littleturnipcakes.