To celebrate Lunar New Year, our family went to Uwajimaya Asian Market in Beaverton, Ore. We bought tea, mochi, matcha pudding and warm char siu bao (steamed buns filled with barbecued pork). We also sampled chicken wontons in a spicy chili oil sauce. They were delicious, like little meat clouds. In fact, wonton translates roughly to “swallowing a cloud.” Why, I wondered, had I never made my own wontons? Because making your own wontons is trouble and I don’t like to do hard things, that’s why. But sometimes the hard way is also the fun way.
I researched recipes for wonton filling and watched a few videos about the different ways to fold wontons, which can depend on whether they will be boiled or fried. Once I felt sufficiently informed (and my bar is pretty low on that count) I decided to make wonton soup.
First, I made the broth. Typically, broth for wonton soup is clear or nearly clear with a few simple flavorings. The broth is poured over the boiled wontons and blanched bok choy. However, there are as many wonton soup recipes as there are blades of grass in a meadow, so maybe it’s an oversimplification to say “typically” because there’s really no such thing. What I made is not authentic, if such a thing could even be decided upon, and is inspired by my own tastes and informed by my own experience making wonton soup exactly one time. That is to say, I’m not an authority, I am merely a wonton dilettante. I’m a wonettante.
I poured two boxes of chicken broth (although you can use pork or beef or vegetable broth, whatever goes with your wonton filling) into a large pot and added two diced scallions, a finely diced half onion, a half cup of shredded carrots, a carton of sliced button mushrooms, four minced garlic cloves and 1 heaping tablespoon of fresh grated ginger. (For my husband, that was definitely too much ginger. For me, it was pleasantly sinus-clearing.) I added a few dashes of soy sauce, ¼ teaspoon of white pepper and ¼ teaspoon of mushroom umami seasoning and salt to taste. I let it simmer on low while I turned my attention to the wontons.
I used a pound of ground chicken for the filling, but any combination of ground meats would work: pork, shrimp, turkey, beef, duck, crab or lobster. I don’t see why you couldn’t use elk, venison or salmon, if you wanted to make wontons with Northwest flair. I mixed the chicken with two finely minced garlic cloves, two finely diced scallions, and 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger. I added about 1 teaspoon of Sriracha, a few dashes of soy sauce, a dollop of hoisin sauce and a pinch of salt. I used my hands to smoosh everything together thoroughly. Some fillings also contain an egg for binder, a little sugar and finely chopped cabbage. (If you want to use cabbage, it should be salted beforehand to draw out the liquid.)
For the wontons, I chose the bonnet fold, not because it’s necessarily the best for boiling but because I think it’s the prettiest. (For a quick guide on wonton folding, see thewoksoflife.com/how-to-fold-wontons or watch the video at hot-thai-kitchen.com/5-ways-to-wrap-wontons/.) I found that the key was to use very little filling, just shy of a teaspoon. I put the filling in the center then moistened the edges of the wrapper with water to make them sticky. I folded the wrapper into a rectangle, taking care to squeeze any air pockets out and completely sealing the sides, especially the top where filling tended to squish out. Then I took the left and right sides of the rectangle and drew them together in front, crossing one corner over the other and gluing them together with a dab of water. Voila! I had a wonton with a bonnet good enough for “Little House on the Prairie.”
My package contained about 50 wrappers; I made 25 wontons and used half the filling. (Fortunately, wontons can be frozen for up to three months.) About 10 minutes before my husband and daughter were due to arrive home, I plopped the wontons into the broth along with two heads of baby bok choy, cut into quarters. Because the wontons have such a teensy amount of filling, they cook rather quickly, in five to seven minutes. That’s conveniently about as long as it takes the bok choy to get tender without losing its bright green color.
I ladled up steaming bowls of soup and served them with grated carrots and a sprinkling of scallions. It was fragrant, warming and satisfying without being heavy — just the thing for a wintry day. I was full of wonder that I had made wontons from scratch, like some kind of person who knows how to do things. But here’s the thing: You don’t need to know how to do things to do things, if you know what I mean. Just do them and see what happens. You might end up tasting the clouds.