Wonton, or Chinese dumpling, is a staple food popular throughout China. As a
Cantonese I am proud to say that the word Wonton comes from Cantonese rather
than Mandarin, as the dumplings were likely introduced to the West by early
settlers in Chinatown, who came primarily from the Cantonese-speaking coastal
cities in Southern China.
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.
Wontons are slightly different in various part of China. May I give you an introduction?
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.
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... exciting!
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 Sichuan 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.
The Shanghainese wonton is also folded into a triangle, but a slight twist in the second folding gives it a lovely shape. For the Cantonese style, the wonton is simply wrapped by bringing the four corners together and squeeze. Cantonese wontons first appeared as street foods, and hawkers got to find the quickest way to wrap up the wontons.
You may have noticed that I never mention fried wontons. Yes, we never fry our wontons. They are boiled, then served in plate or in a bowl of broth. That's why they are also known as the Wonton Soup.
What's the Difference Between Jiaozi (Gyoza) and Wonton?
Oh, they are different. 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.
Now that you know so much more about wonton, maybe your next wonton soup will taste even better!
About the Author.
Stephanie chats about her quick, authentic and home-style Chinese cooking in her food blog. A Hong Kong native, her craving for Chinese food began when she studied and worked in the United States. Upon returning to Hong Kong, she rediscovered the wok and the spatula and has been enjoying cooking ever since. You can get her Chinese recipes, glossary, cooking tips and fun facts on Chinese food at The Chinese Kitchen.