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Dumplings (Wontons) Geography Lesson

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Dumplings on my Mind

dumplingsClass is now in session.

A Chinese dumpling, or a wonton, is a staple food popular throughout China.  Dumplings were likely introduced to the West by early settlers in Chinatown, who came primarily from the Cantonese-speaking coastal cities in Southern China.

It seems like I’ve got dumplings on the brain as it’s the second time in a few weeks that I’m writing an article about Dumplings.  And I do!  We were supposed to go out east to Red Tiger Dumpling House a few weeks ago.  But alas, we planned on going on a Monday.  And alas, they are closed on Mondays.  So yes, yes I do have dumplings on my mind.

In Chinese, wonton means “swallowing clouds”.  If you are familiar with Chinese art you may also find that the wonton, floating in the broth, resembles the traditional “spiral cloud” motif in Chinese handicrafts.  One famous example:  The Torch for the Beijing Olympics is known as the “Lucky Cloud Torch” in Chinese.

Beijing Olympics Torch

Wontons are slightly different in various part of China.  Let me explain the differences.


Cantonese Wonton

The Cantonese wonton has a yellow wrapping (made from flour and egg: think pasta sheet) typically filled with minced pork and shrimp.  The dumplings are usually served in egg noodles, a type of thin, very chewy (almost like rubber band) noodle prevalent in Southern China. Interestingly, the preparation of the broth is an art in itself — all the best wonton shops have their own secret recipes for the soup base; but in general, shrimp shells is believed to be a major ingredient.

The wonton is simply wrapped by bringing the four corners together and squeezed.  Cantonese wontons first appeared as street foods, and hawkers found this method to be the quickest way to wrap up the wontons.


Shanghainese Wonton

This type of Chinese dumpling has a white, thicker wrapping (made from flour only) and the filling includes minced pork and Shanghainese bok choy.  In some variations chopped leeks and spring onions are added.  For the soup, the soup base is usually made from mixing soy sauce, water and a bit of seasoning, mostly to give color to the unappealing white appearance. (White is a taboo color for traditional Chinese because it is associated with death).

While minced pork remains the most popular ingredient, international cuisines have inspired a lot of new varieties: chicken with mushroom, carrot, beans with corn, preserved vegetables with black fungus… sounds yummy, eh?

The Shanghainese wonton is folded into a triangle, but a slight twist in the second folding gives it a lovely shape.


Szechuan Wonton

Known as “Chao Shou” (crossed hands), they also have a white, relatively thick wrapping. Chao Shou is boiled and served in very, very spicy sauce, as in almost all Szechuan cuisine.

As to why this particular dumpling is called Chao Shou, I think its name originates from how it is wrapped: the wrapping is first folded into a triangular shape and the two sides of the triangle is brought to the front, overlapping each other, resembling a person folding his arms.


What’s the Difference Between Jiaozi (Gyoza) and Wonton?

Jiaozi, or Gyoza in Japanese, are basically potstickers: they have a thicker wrapping, with texture similar to thick ravioli wraps.  They also take a longer, flatter, horn-like shape (“Jiao” sounds like “horn” in Mandarin).  Depending on the provinces in China you can taste jiaozi made from pork, beef, lamb, chicken or fish mixed with a wide variety of vegetables.  They can be boiled, steamed, or pan-fried, and are served with dipping sauce.  Red vinegar, soy sauce and chili sauce are among the most popular.

You may have noticed that I never mention fried wontons.  Authentic Chinese cuisine NEVER ever fries wontons (Such an Americanization!!)  They are boiled, then served in plate or in a bowl of broth (which is, of course, Wonton Soup).  Now that you know so much more about wonton, maybe your next wonton soup will taste even better!

Humbly submitted for your consumption,

–Mee Magnum (“Chop!  Chop!”)

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