Monday, August 1, 2016

Wontons from coastal Zhejiang

When we both were working more than full time in Taipei, Sunday was pretty much our only day off, as long as the museum didn’t have any special guests rolling in on the weekend. That was the time my husband and I would take a long, leisurely hike over the mountains behind our home in Peitou toward the ocean. 

We’d start out in the cool morning and amble past rice paddies and the most stunning nursery I’ve ever seen: a sea of cobalt irises swaying above the water, ready for the capital’s beautiful flower markets. We would then wend our way carefully past a couple of farms guarded with the nastiest geese in the world, as well as a couple of pitbulls who could always be counted on to threaten us with grievous bodily harm until their long chains went taut and we could make our escape up a little path and into the forest.

It was definitely a long and hot hike by the time we hit the summit and the ocean breeze could finally make its way among the trees to cool us off. We would find a road somewhere along the way and start to head downhill, our stomachs rumbling and me usually dying of thirst, for I knew exactly what I wanted and where to find it once we hit our destination.

Taipei’s sweet little harbor village called Tamsui had a row of old Japanese brick buildings lining the main drag, and the shops opened up all the way to the back, so Tamsui River could be seen lolling around. This was where I found the best antiques, like an old pottery bowl I still treasure for its almost Picasso-like birds and a wooden ladle that has served me well for decades. It was also where I saw a hefty Siamese cat and an equally chubby Pekingese dog wrestle with their limbs wrapped around each other as they rolled across a shop floor.

Down by the little traffic circle was a small shop that offered chilled homemade soymilk, and we would demolish a couple of glasses to cool off as our way of getting ready for lunch. This was where we always went for the most exquisite wontons. The owner/chef was from Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang smack between Shanghai to the north and Fuzhou to the south, so you already know this is place has amazing food. He specialized in the silky, intensely juicy packets of Wenzhou that would be served swimming in a flavorful broth with a spangling of shredded omelet, laver seaweed, spinach, and green onions.
Fresh shrimp are the secret ingredient

Knowing me as well as he did after all those years, an ancient Taiwan Beer bottle would also be set by my bowl, the cap cleverly peaked up on one side to make a teeny spout. Inside would be liquid gold: a portion of his own stash of homemade black vinegar made by a friend of his in Keelung, the big shipping harbor on Taiwan’s north shore. Thick and rich, I’d drizzle this over the wontons and then be transformed by all the flavors popping in my mouth with that first sip/bite. He would usually slide my usual order of a perfectly crisp chicken leg across to me about that time, and I’d lather it up with a good glug of that vinegar, too.

This recipe will give you around 60 wontons, and these are easy to freeze. Just lay them in single layers on baking sheets covered with dry teacloths and sprinkled with flour. Once the wontons are frozen solid, pack them in freezer bags. They should be boiled directly from the freezer without defrosting first. Consider this as a good way to make many delicious meals an easy reality.
Seasoned water makes each bite juicy

Wenzhou style wontons
Wēnzhōu húntūn 溫州餛飩
Makes 60 wontons, serves 4, with wontons to spare

¾ cup / 175ml cool water
2 green onions, trimmed and finely shredded
5 thin slices ginger, finely chopped
6 shrimp (size 16/20), or about 5 ounces / 150g any size fresh shrimp, cleaned and shelled
1½ teaspoons sea salt, divided into 1 and ½ teaspoons
8 ounces / 225g ground pork
3 tablespoons / 45g Shaoxing rice wine
1 (1 pound / 454g) package large wonton skins (see Tips)
All-purpose flour, as needed

4 cups chicken stock
Boiling water, as needed
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
4 thin slices ginger
2 green onions

2 large eggs
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon cool water
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Around 6.5 ounces / 12g toasted laver seaweed (nori or zicai)
Large handful of fresh spinach, trimmed and washed
1 green onion, trimmed and sliced thinly
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
The runny filling
1. This recipe can be started weeks ahead of time and the wontons frozen, as you will have approximate 60 wontons when you’re finished. The wontons are almost always made in a quantity much more than they are needed because it just makes life so much easier if you bang out five dozen of these and freeze them, although you can of course toss some of these in the pot as soon as they are done and freeze the rest. To make the wontons, first put together a seasoned water by mixing the water with the finely chopped green onions and ginger. Mix these around in a measuring cup by rubbing the solids in the water, which will release their flavor. Let the aromatics soak for at least an hour, and then strain out and discard the solids. At the same time, toss the chopped shrimp with the salt and let these marinate in the refrigerator. Just before using, drain off any liquid, pat the shrimp dry with a paper towel, and chop them coarsely.

2. Make the filling by placing the ground pork in a medium work bowl. Use one hand to hold the bowl and the other to first mix in the rice wine and then slowly add all of the seasoned water to give the meat time to absorb it, sort of like making mayonnaise. If you hold your dominant hand like a paddle and prop the bowl on a wet towel or bowl holder, this will be quite easy and strangely satisfying. When the meat has turned pale and fluffy, mix in the shrimp. Cover the mixture and chill for at least a couple of hours, which will firm up the filling and make it much easier to wrap. You can even freeze it a bit, if it happens to feel too gloppy to handle easily.

3. To fill the wontons, have a small bowl ready with cool water, a small spatula or dull knife, and a couple of baking sheets lined with plastic wrap, plus extra to cover them. Fan out the wrappers so that they are not stuck together, and then cover them with more plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out and cracking. Follow the directions at the bottom of this post to fill and store the wontons. You will have more than the 24 you actually need for this meal, so freeze any extras.
Fold into a sloppy triangle
4. Prepare the soup by simmering the stock uncovered with about 2 cups of boiling water, rice wine, sugar, ginger, and green onions. After about 20 minutes, strain out the solids.

5. To prepare the garnishes, lightly beat the eggs. Mix the cornstarch with the water and beat this into the eggs. Set a wok over medium-high heat and use a paper towel to smear some oil around the bottom half. When the wok is hot, pour the eggs into the wok and then angle it around so that it forms a thin sheet. Almost immediately, as soon as the eggs are completely set, overturn the wok onto a cutting board so that the omelet plops out. Once the eggs are cool, roll up the omelet and slice it crosswise into a thin julienne. Simmer the balsamic vinegar down to about 2 tablespoons. Use kitchen shears to cut the laver seaweed into thin julienne. Cut the spinach into manageable sizes.

6. Just before serving, bring the stock to a full boil and gently stir in about 2 dozen wontons (6 per person). As soon as they rise to the surface, use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to divide them among 4 large soup bowls. Blanch the spinach in the stock and then divide that, too, among the bowls. Then, divide the omelet and laver seaweed among the bowls, sprinkle on the green onion garnish, and pour the hot stock over everything. Drizzle a bit of sesame oil on top and offer the vinegar on the side. Serve extremely hot with chopsticks and soupspoons.

How to fold wontons:
1. Make a circle with your thumb and forefinger and place a wrapper on top of that.
2. Wet a finger of the other hand and draw a big circle on the wrapper.
3. Place about teaspoon or so of the filling in the middle of the wrapper.
4. Fold the edges together so that they do not match up, but remain loose and fluttery.


  1. Sounds absolutely delicious! And what is the address for this amazing little Tamsui eatery you're referring to? Is it still around, or does it now only exist in the collective memories of its former patrons?

    (And I know those ferocious geese and dogs. Just how many physical and psychological scars they have inflicted on Taiwanese kids over these years we'll never know.)

    1. Sure is, but I'm not sure that the owner or the recipes are the same. Definitely worth a try, though: Yeh's Wonton Restaurant. If you happen to visit, please report back!

  2. I am surprised at the balsamic vinegar. Is this is a substitute for Chinkiang?

    1. Yes. There is a genuine problem with the quality of vinegars from the Mainland, as I discussed here:

      Lead and other assorted health risks - as well as the poor taste of the product - have made me turn to balsamic, at least until things improve.