The last time my parents, siblings and I traveled together to Hong Kong — in 1997, to witness the handover from Britain back to China — my dad took us to the part of Kowloon where he grew up. At one point, he slipped down an alley, alone, to visit his favorite childhood wonton stand and returned with a contentment I coveted.
Despite the uncertainty around us, he looked utterly at peace. That’s the power of wonton soup.
In Hong Kong, you can find wonton soup in high-end dining rooms or, more commonly, slung casually as a quick meal, as it is in Chinatowns around the world. Its ubiquity may be why it isn’t often served for the special feasts of Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Jan. 22 and ushers in the Year of the Rabbit.
To my mind, wontons are ideal for a new year party precisely because they’re an everyday comfort food. They’re so closely intertwined with Hong Kong and Cantonese cuisine that they can fill the loss of home for immigrants like my parents. For someone like me, born on the other side of the world but tied to the culture, they’re a tangible connection to family and homeland. And for anyone who loves wontons (that’s everyone, right?), the process of making them from scratch is as much a celebration as eating them.
The presence of wontons on Chinese New Year is nothing new: According to Grace Young, an award-winning cookbook author and culinary historian, they were eaten for the holiday in ancient times because they symbolize wealth, given their resemblance to gold ingots. It’s the same reason other dumplings are standard fare for the holiday.
To clarify, wontons are dumplings, but not all dumplings are wontons. And not all wontons are Cantonese — there are thicker-skinned versions in northern China and spicy ones from Sichuan in the southwest, among others — but the Hong Kong style, distinguished by silky wrappers and shrimp in the stuffing, is arguably the best. “The Cantonese wonton makes an art form of it,” Ms. Young said.
Shrimp bring juiciness to the filling, which is usually bound by ground or finely minced fatty pork. Ms. Young said that the shrimp “should be crisp, not mushy or soft or mealy.” That snappy freshness is attainable in shrimp from seafood markets in Hong Kong and other waterside regions, but harder to find otherwise. To replicate that crunch, I use my mom’s trick of salting peeled shrimp, then letting them sit for a bit. That step helps draw out excess water from the crustaceans’ freeze-and-thaw journey to the kitchen, making them firmer. It also amplifies their subtle sweetness.
A hallmark of Cantonese cuisine is highlighting ingredients’ inherent flavors, so I season my filling simply — with just a few sauces, scallions and ginger. Some cooks add diced fresh water chestnuts for more crunch and rehydrated dried shiitakes or wood ear mushrooms for chew.
Premade square wrappers, sometimes labeled “Hong Kong-style,” can be found in many supermarkets and work great, but if they’re unavailable, preparing the dough from scratch requires only pantry ingredients. Because Cantonese wonton wrappers are thin, they let the filling shine. Distinct from thicker dumpling skins made with only flour and water, they include egg, which yields a richer, more supple dough that can roll into extremely flat sheets. Pressing the dough through a pasta machine makes the technique especially easy. (Rolling by hand takes more muscle and patience.)
Both store-bought and from-scratch wrappers can be pinched into endless shapes. While the neatly tucked look of ingots are ideal for deep-fried wontons, a free-form fold is best for wontons in soup. A corner of the wrapper should be pleated over the marble of filling, and the remaining dough should flow off the end like the train of a wedding gown. When boiled, then floated in soup, that golden wrapper will ripple on the surface and taste like the most delicate slip of a noodle. In Cantonese, “wonton” translates to “swallowing a cloud,” and these look and taste that ethereal. Add long, wiry wonton noodles to the bowl and you have a complete meal, along with the promise of longevity for the new year.
The “dessert” most often offered after a Cantonese meal is fresh fruit. For Chinese New Year, mandarin oranges are served because their name is a homophone for gold in Cantonese, symbolizing prosperity, and they’re often chased with candied nuts and seeds. But to follow simple, traditional wontons, here’s a simple twist on tradition: sesame shortbread that bake the nutty black sesame seeds found in Chinese New Year candies and sweets, like tang yuan, into buttery cookies.
While cookies may not be customary for the holiday, they represent the ever-changing nature of Hong Kong’s food. In her seminal book, “New Cantonese Cooking,” Eileen Yin-Fei Lo wrote: “Only the food of Canton has no limitations, no restrictions. It is a cookery open to experimentation and creativeness.” Crumbly and not too sweet, these modern treats capture the spirit of renewal for the holiday, a time to reset with something new.
“Coming from a tiger year — and it did feel pretty ferocious — I think that we’re bound to have good fortune,” Ms. Young said about the coming year of the rabbit, which some predict will be calm and peaceful. There’s no better way to bring that on than with a beloved classic dish and a brand-new one.
Recipes: Wonton Wrappers | Wontons | Fried Wontons | Wonton Soup | Black Sesame Shortbread
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