Local chef and wonton soup connoisseur shares his love of the Chinese tradition
“Wonton soup means swallowing clouds,” Chef John Wong says. “It’s a weird translation, you know how English doesn’t translate to Chinese, and vice versa.”
When a wonton (dumpling) is cooked, it floats up in the soup’s broth. That’s where the Chinese name comes from.
“That’s a cloud, and you’re supposed to swallow it,” Wong explains. “The preferred way of eating wonton soup, wonton meaning dumpling, is to eat it whole.”
By the way, for those who are not familiar, wonton soup is an extremely well-known Chinese dish.
GMT recently had the opportunity to learn about the traditions behind wonton soup from Wong, who is a resident of Globe, chef, former owner of two restaurants, and friend of GMT. Wong has sampled many wonton soups over the years. As a self-proclaimed believer in this magical soup, and a captive to what he refers to as “wonton lust,” Wong took the time to share everything he knows about it.
“I love wonton soup. I’m obsessed,” he says. “I don’t like deviation from the true wonton soup. I like the real thing.”
Wonton soup, Wong explains, is a long-standing tradition that began mainly in South China, particularly Canton. Over the years, it has spread throughout China. These days, it is a street food, he says, and more importantly, a comfort food.
Wong grew up making wonton soup with his family, which is of Chinese descent. The traditions had been passed down to his parents back in China, who are both from Canton and were also restaurateurs. Whenever there was a special occasion in Wong’s family, like New Year’s Eve, Day of the Dead, or a birthday, the family would get together and make the soup using the fresh produce from his family’s farm. It was something the whole family looked forward to.
“My parents in their kitchen, they created that production line of making wontons. That brings back memories,” he remembers. “I think that’s what built my appreciation of wonton soup, where all my family members would be around the table in a production line making it, which is a lot of fun.”
“Sometimes when you go have dinner with your family, just one person makes the entire dinner,” he adds. “This actually involved the whole family making the wontons in a production line. So my mom, my dad, my sisters, my brother, we would all be at the table, making wontons, making dinner. So we’re all contributing.”
Later on in life, as an adult, Wong spent eight months traveling through Asia with the sole purpose of developing a menu he would use to open his restaurant, which would have an international Asian flair. He traveled throughout China and other countries in Asia, tracking down chefs both in restaurants and in food trucks on the street. By simply watching and communicating through what was often broken English, he learned their techniques. He found them, he says, “through food.”
“Their response would be to welcome me into their kitchen and show me hands on how these things were prepared,” he remembers. “So even though we didn’t share a language of English, we shared food as our passion.”
“When I traveled throughout China, I realized throughout all the provinces they had their own different types of wontons for their own reasons,” he adds. “But usually what’s in it, the stuffing, is the same.”
These travels only deepened Wong’s love of wonton soup, and he would eventually serve it in his own restaurants.
“With my last restaurant, I think we had an awesome product because a lot of people often ordered my wonton soup and then had it to go,” he says. “Because a good wonton soup is really hard to get, as I’ve found out, too.”
Rest assured, there are plenty of things to do with wontons aside from put them in soup, Wong says. They can be modified into crab rangoons (crab puffs), wonton chips, or they can be cut into strips and fried.
“So don’t feel pressured, like ‘I have to make all this just for soup,’” he adds. “There is a lot of stuff to do with them.”
What he does suggest when enjoying an authentic bowl of wonton soup, particularly with triangle shaped wontons, is slurping. Like a sommelier slurps wine to bring in oxygen, a connoisseur of wonton soup slurps the broth. It’s perfectly acceptable, he says. It’s part of the experience, and it actually builds flavor.
And, it’s the most fun part.
Note: Wong says that he is looking forward to opening another Asian concept restaurant in the future, but in the meantime, he is enjoying staying home and being a full-time “professional dad” to two young boys.
Chef Wong’s Commentary on the Ins and Outs of Wonton Soup
The key to making a top-notch soup, Wong says, is a killer homemade broth. It should be translucent.
“You could see all the way to the bottom. That makes an awesome soup because you can see all of your ingredients.”
Making the broth base is the first step. First you hard boil your pork bones, which lifts the toxins and fat from the bones.
“A lot of chefs say, ‘Oh, that’s reverse thinking because you’re getting rid of all the flavor,’” Wong says. “You ever make pork chops on the stove or boil some meat? You get a lot of fat and chunks of blood clots floating up. Well, you get rid of that, because that doesn’t taste very good.”
After the bones are boiled, throw everything away and wash the bones clean. Then boil a pot of water. Once it reaches a rapid boil, turn it down to a simmer and add the pork bones, dried shrimp (fish sauce can be used as a substitute if there are concerns about a shrimp allergy), and salt and white pepper for seasoning.
“By simmering the bones at that state, your water won’t be cloudy,” Wong explains. “Don’t hard boil after that or you will get cloudy soup.”
Also, avoid black pepper or you’ll ruin your translucent broth, warns Wong.
Next is the hard part. Sit back and let the broth simmer, for eight hours.
The Wonton Mixture
A good wonton, Wong says, is one with a tender filling.
“You can taste exactly what’s in it, instead of this mushed up ground meatball which is grey, where you can’t really tell what’s really in it.”
If you are taking a short cut and buying premade wontons, do not buy the white ones, Wong warns. It should be a square, and as yellow as possible.
“That means they actually used egg to make it, egg and wheat flour,” he explains. “If it’s just pure white it means it’s just wheat flour. It’s not as tasty, and the problem with that is once you boil your wonton, it’ll tend to break apart, where the yellow one does not.”
If you are making your own wontons, then the next step is to chop up your pork to the same size as your shrimp – the sizes should be the same for consistency.
He also recommends adding a bit of alcohol to the mixture, like Chinese rice wine or dried sherry, because the alcohol balances the fat.
What he does not recommend, although it’s commonplace to do so, is adding garlic to the wonton mixture.
“I don’t recommend it because garlic kind of takes over the wonton,” he says.
Preparing the Wontons
There are a variety of ways to fold wontons, Wong says. There is the money bag technique, rabbit ears, crisscross fingers, the triangle, the Chinese gold coin, the list goes on.
Wong prefers the basic triangle, but you might choose another method if you plan on freezing any, or else the ends of the triangles can break off easily once frozen.
Regardless of which method you use, the most important part is that you squeeze all the air out of the wonton when you fold it, Wong says. Otherwise, during the boiling process, they will fall apart, and they will float not when they’re actually done, but because there are air bubbles left inside of them.
Also, always keeps them covered during the process with a wet, damp towel so that they don’t dry out.
Lastly, Wong avoids blanching the wontons in the wonton soup broth, otherwise it becomes starchy from the flour on the wontons. You also don’t want to crowd the wontons as you blanch them, he says. The wontons should move freely in the boiling water while they’re cooking so that the skin doesn’t break.
Make sure you don’t over-boil your wontons, he warns. Once it floats, it’s done.
The size of the dried egg noodle you use should be thinner than angel hair, Wong recommends.
“In China, they’re rated by numbers. It’s usually a number six,” he says. “But these days, I don’t usually see the numbers anywhere, unless you’re in China or in an Asian store.”
Like the wontons, the noodles should be blanched separate, away from the broth.
“With the noodles, once it’s al dente, and springy, it’s done,” he adds. “You don’t want a mushy noodle because when you put your hot broth on it, it’s going to sit in the hot broth, and it’s going to continue to cook.”
The Final Touches
Lastly, add the final touches, like coriander leaves (otherwise known as cilantro), and bok choy. Bok choy is traditional and gives the soup a nice color, Wong adds.
This is when you’ll also want to add sesame oil into broth, Wong suggests. If you add it any sooner, it will dissipate throughout the cooking process, he explains.
“So I only add it when I put the final soup together,” he adds.
Finally, Wong adds his own special touch.
“Preserved vegetables are very popular in China because you can’t have them year around,” he says. “So what makes my wonton soup a little different than everyone else’s is something called chung choy, which is a preserved turnip ball. That adds flavor in my final soup.”
Wonton Soup Recipe
Simmer the following in water for eight hours:
Pork Bones, after they’ve been hard boiled and cleaned
Dried Shrimp (or fish sauce if there’s a shrimp allergy)
Hand mix the following mixture, then let sit for 30 minutes:
Pork and shrimp, cut to same size
Shiitake mushrooms (optional)
Divide wonton filling into wonton wrappers
Brush sides with egg white/water mixture
Then fold, press air out
Keep wontons covered with wet towel
Blanch Wontons and Noodles
Blanch wontons separate from broth, they will be done once they float
Blanch egg noodles (thinner than angel hair) separate from the broth until they are al dente, or springy
Combine wonton. s and noodles into broth
Add coriander (cilantro) leaves, sesame oil, bok choy, and turnip ball/chung choy
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.