From meaty to veggie, fried to boiled, traditionally flavoured to globally inspired, there’s a wonton to suit most palates. Wontons, unlike dumplings, tend to be made with a thin, square wrapper and served in soups. While eaten all over China, they are more popular in the southern part of the country, including Shanghai.
Chef Kathy Fang is an expert on how to infuse a wonton with Shanghainese flavours. Fang grew up in the kitchen of her family’s much lauded San Francisco restaurant, House of Nanking. She opened Fang restaurant in 2009 with her father, Peter, with whom she appears in a docuseries called Chef Dynasty: House of Fang. Fang is also a two-time champion on Food Network’s Chopped.
Wontons are a staple in Shanghainese families, usually made monthly and in bulk. In Fang’s busy family, it wasn’t often that she and her parents got to spend quality time together. But once a month, after they finished the late shift at the restaurant, everyone in her family would gather at home, stay up far past bedtime and make wontons together from scratch. They would boil the wontons, eat them around the table and wrap more to freeze for future use.
Wontons filled with pork mince was a standby for the family. But Fang has riffed on the traditional recipe to create juicy bites filled with pork mince as well as prawns and celery, served in a light broth fragrant with sesame and soy.
“This version in particular is a favourite of mine,” said Fang, “because the celery adds a nice fresh crunch. It also releases liquid, which makes the filling more juicy. You can’t get any healthier than celery; zero calorie, full of fibre. I like to add prawns to lighten up the filling a bit.”
Fang explained that there are three things that distinguish Shanghai wontons from their regional siblings: the way they’re wrapped; the ratio of pork to prawns; and the inclusion of seasonal vegetables. For example, in Shanghai, wontons are commonly wrapped using the diamond or bonnet technique. In more southern regions of China, like Guandong or Hong Kong, the scrunch method is more common.
There are also key distinctions in the broth. Southern regions serve wontons in pork-based broths that are light in flavour and made with dried prawns. Shanghai wontons are typically served in a broth with a base of soy sauce or chicken stock.
Despite regional differences, Fang likes to customise the fillings. “These days there are vegetarian versions with tofu and bok choy, and I’ve done a version with Italian sausage and mushrooms,” she said. “Now that we’re exposed to so many ingredients, we can put different things in wontons that aren’t so traditional anymore!” For those who don’t eat pork, chicken mince, turkey mince or finely minced tofu can all be substituted.
In addition to fillings, you can adjust the seasonings. Fang says the traditional seasonings, whether the wonton is vegetable or prawn, include sesame oil and the right balance of salt and sugar. If you’re using pork or another protein, seasonings can include white pepper, soy sauce, liquid aminos (a gluten-free substitute for soy sauce), sake, mirin or Chinese wine, which is great for bringing out the flavour of pork.
Most adults eat wontons in a single bite, but children often need their wonton cut into smaller pieces, which makes the filling spills out. When Fang was a child, her mother helped her to make tiny wontons, perfectly sized for a mini chef (and eater). As Fang grew, so did her wontons, until one day they reached the standard size, and she could officially call herself a big kid.
Now as a mother, Fang follows the same steps with her own children. “It’s really sweet to watch my kids grow through wontons because I associate that with family. My mom started that tradition by making the baby ones, and then I caught on and was like ‘Oh, that’s brilliant!’.”
This tradition has now been passed down to Fang’s own children and she hopes that it will continue for generations to come. Recipes, like wontons, highlight the importance of community; multiple generations gathering around a table and passing down culinary knowledge.
Fang said, “You don’t have to spend a ton of money to create memories [bringing] family [together] over something as simple as a wonton.”