It was a cold winter night. John had gotten home relatively late from work, and so we headed out for our usual Thursday night out. About halfway through dinner, John announced that he had an after work baby shower to go to the next night for one of the medical assistants at his practice. “We’re supposed to bring an ethnic dish.” I jokingly asked him if was expected, on the basis of his marriage, to bring something Chinese. Afterall, one of his co-workers once surmised before having met me that John’s wife must be Chinese since he “always brings soup” for lunch. (Yeah, I don’t know either, but I can’t really complain since I think this is a stereotype that might be true.)
“I thought maybe I might stop by the International District on my way to work tomorrow and pick up some Chinese pastries,” he said, but that seemed like it was more trouble that it was worth since he goes to work pretty early in the morning. “Why don’t we try making wontons?” I asked.
I can only presume that fried wontons are more Chinese American than ethnically Chinese in their creation, but it came to mind so quickly since I grew up with these as my parents’ go-to party dish. Each year around Christmas time, I’d wake up around 5:00 in the morning to the sounds of my parents clanging around the kitchen and the smells of vegetable oil heating up in a large wok. The goal was to make and assemble hundreds of fried wontons for their annual holiday party at work. I’d be cranky from the early morning wake up call, but the thought of getting to play around with the silky smooth wonton wrappers and getting to sample the crunchy fried goodies fresh out of the pan would motivate me to get up and help them out. The motivation must have been strong if I got up to help each year despite the mildly derisive teasing from my parents about how awkwardly I folded my dumplings.
Those wontons were crunchy on the outside but the stuffing of pork, sweetened with shrimp, mildly spicy from some ginger, and delightfully crunchy with bits of water chestnuts, are one of my favorite food memories from when I was growing up. Occasionally, my parents would host a holiday party at our house and I remember how the daughter of a friend of my parents and I would sneak away from the boring conversation of grown-ups to go watch a movie elsewhere in the house (probably Grease or Grease 2) with a plateful of my parents’ wontons and a plateful of her mother’s light, crispy and heavily powdered sugar pizzelle cookies. Crispy food but contrasting in salty vs. sweet– what better movie snack food is there?
So I eagerly proposed that we try making wontons, also seizing this as an opportunity to try out the deep fryer that our friends dumped off lovingly gave to us and which had not been touched in the year or so that we’d had it. John agreed, only semi-reluctantly in case this would take too long. Indeed, it was almost 9:00 at night when we hit the grocery store for ingredients, and although we quickly found the wonton wrappers, John’s insistence that the store trip be short and sweet meant that I had to forgo finding shrimp to add to the ground pork and I had to substitute cremini mushrooms for fresh shiitakes. However, no fear– these came together quickly, what with a quick blitz of the stuffing ingredients in the food processor, two of us folding up the dumplings (and yes, I was grateful that finally there was someone else whom I could tease about their faulty dumpling folding), and the fryer’s capacity of 10-12 wontons per batch. We were done in about an hour’s time and John had a tasty, homemade treat to take to his work party that impressed his co-workers. When he got home after the party the next night, John commented to me that I’ll make a great mom someday since this was a trial run for the inevitable, “I’ve got a science project due tomorrow; please help!” Uh sure… maybe our kid can talk about the science of deep-frying?
*Note: Below is what we actually used, but I think these wontons would be even better with the addition of half to 3/4 lb raw shrimp (peeled entirely including the tail and deveined) in place of 1/3 of the pork and swapping out the cremini mushrooms for shiitakes. A splash of sherry couldn’t hurt as well. As is, we still had about 1 cup of leftover stuffing (after using up all the wrappers from a single pack of wonton wrappers) which I froze and used later on in soup (go figure!) Lastly, if you haven’t used them before, wonton wrappers can usually be found in your grocery store in the produce section near where they keep tofu.
- 13.3 oz ground pork
- 1 small can of water chestnut slices, drained
- 1 small can of bamboo shoots, drained
- 1 inch fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into small pieces
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 large green onions, chopped
- 4 oz cremini mushrooms, quartered
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- pinch of Chinese Five Spice powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 2 tsp corn starch
- 1 package wonton wrappers
- 1 egg, beaten with a little water
- 4 cups canola oil (or other light vegetable oil– peanut if you got it.)
- hot mustard for serving.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer or in a large heavy bottomed pot to about 350 degrees F. In the bowl of a food processor, add all the ingredients from the ground pork through the corn starch. Grind until all the vegetables are finely chopped and mixed well into the pork. Set up your assembly station by putting the stuffing mixture, your egg wash, and your wrappers on a clean countertop in front of you.
To assemble a wonton, carefully peel a single wrapper off of the pile and lay it in a diamond shape so that a corner is facing you. Place about 1 tsp of the filling in the center of the wrapper then lightly brush each of the four sides of the diamond with a bit of the egg wash. Fold the corner closest to you upwards so it meets the top corner, and using your finger, press on the sides to seal it all together. You should now have a triangle shape. Take the two ends of the long side of the triangle and bring them together, carefully fanning out the sides as you do so. You can moisten the tip of one of the corners with a dab of egg wash to help the points stick together. See this link for more ideas on how to fold your wontons, and for an illustration of what I’m trying to describe, scroll down to the instructions for “Samosa with a Twist.”
Fry in batches for about 3 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve warm. We made these the night before, and although John seemed to like eating these even when cold, I preferred reheating mine gently in the oven at 300 degrees F for about 10 minutes.