Shanghai Wontons in Soup 上海三鲜馄饨 Shanghai San Xian Hun Tun)
February 6, 2021
Wontons (馄饨), to the Southern Chinese, are like dumplings or jiaozi (饺子) to the Northern Chinese. Simply put, both hold irreplaceable importance to their respective Chinese people. Wontons have evolved over the past millennium. Many Southern places in China have developed their own unique versions of wontons and some even have regional names for it.
What is the difference between a “wonton” and a “dumpling (jiaozi)?” Besides the different regional names, their shape, look, size, and manner of eating are also different. Generally speaking, wontons are smaller in size, shaped like an ancient Chinese ingot, filled with less filling, and eaten in soups or with soup noodles. Dumpling (jiaozi), on the other hand, are shaped like a half moon and usually eaten with some kind of dipping sauce. Wontons use square-shaped wrappers, while dumplings (jiaozi) use round wrappers.
I’ve tasted different wontons in the past. Some were homemade, some were from restaurants. But for some reason, maybe due to my northern upbringing, I always felt the meat in wontons was not enough to satisfy my appetite. This, however, changed after an encounter at my in-laws home ten years ago.
It was during a family gathering. My in-laws had some relatives visiting from Shanghai and everyone participated in folding the wontons. It was a family event just like my growing up experience with dumplings, which I described in my previous dumpling post. They used ground pork, Chinese celery, and shrimp as the three main ingredients for the Shanghai wontons. I thought to myself: “Chinese celery? That’s kinda weird.” But I kept it to myself until I took a bite into the final product.
OMG…I was completed wowed. The wontons had a good amount of filling, and tasted so tender, juicy, and full of umami. They were in a bowl of clear soup with some green leaves, which perfectly balanced the meatiness. It was unquestionably the best wontons I had ever had! The Chinese celery undoubtedly added to the umami, but I couldn’t detect the celery smell despite the Chinese celery having a stronger flavor than western celery. I wasn’t alone in this. My husband, who is not a celery fan, couldn’t find the celery smell either. He also downed the entire bowl in no time.
So I had to learn this recipe from my in-laws again! I came from Northern China, but I have to admit, when it comes to this culinary art, the Southern Chinese easily win. Geographically speaking, Southern China is much better suited for agriculture and fisheries. With abundant arable land and water resources, the southern dishes are in general more refined and delicate. Today thanks to population migration, it becomes quite possible to enjoy Southern dishes in Northern China and vice versa. I digress here. I will write something to try to summarize the differences between Northern and Southern Chinese cuisines in a future post.
If you are not a celery fan like my husband, don’t give up on this recipe yet. There is no bitter celery taste if you follow my directions. Make sure you get the Chinese celery (aka. leaf celery), and not the Western kind. Most Asian grocery stores carry it. The Chinese celery has thinner stalks and edible, flavorful leaves.
I always freeze the extra wontons and put them in a Ziploc bag in the freezer for future use. The frozen ones are great for a quick dinner or lunch when I’m short on time.
Preparation Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2.5 hours
Servings: about 100-120 Shanghai large wontons
- 1.5 lb (~680g) ground pork1
- 1 1-inch long piece of ginger
- 2 green onions
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine
- 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- ~1 lb Chinese celery (leaves and stalks combined)2
- 0.5 lb thawed shrimp (shelled and de-veined)
- 2 to 4 dried shiitake mushrooms (optional)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 packs Shanghai wonton wrappers (about 60 each)3
Soup (per bowl)
- a few celery leaves (taken from the celery)
- 1 tablespoon cilantro leaves
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- a pinch of ground white pepper
- a pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
- If using dried shiitake mushrooms, immerse them in hot water. Cover and let it sit for 30 minutes. While waiting for the mushrooms to get soft, prepare the other ingredients.
- Peel the ginger and wash the green onions. Mince both the ginger and green onions into super fine pieces.
- In a large mixing bowl, add the 1.5 lb (~680g) ground pork, minced ginger, minced green onions, 1 large egg, 1 tablespoon of Chinese Cooking wine, and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Start mixing everything in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction (but only one direction). Once everything is evenly mixed, cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap and let it sit in the refrigerator while preparing the other ingredients.
- Heat a large pot of water under medium-high heat. While waiting for the water to boil, wash the celery stalks and leaves thoroughly and take the leaves off. Save the celery leaves and set aside (the celery leaves will be used in the soup). When the water boils, add the celery stalks only and blanch for 2 minutes.
- When the 2 minutes is up, take out the celery stalks and rinse them under cold water. Completely drain the water and cut the celery stalks into tiny pieces. If the stalks are wide, first use your hands or a knife to split the stalks into more narrow strips before cutting. Set aside.
- Cut the thawed shrimp into small chunks and put them in a bowl. For size 31 to 40 shrimp, about 4 to 5 chunks will do. Add 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt to the shrimp and mix well.
- The dried shiitake mushrooms from step 1 should be soft by now. Lightly squeeze out the extra water. Remove the stems and cut the shiitake mushrooms into tiny pieces. First cut the shiitake mushrooms into slices. Then turn the mushroom slices by 90 degrees so they are perpendicular to the knife. Lastly further cut the slices into small pieces and rock the chef’s knife back and forth across the mushroom pieces to make them even smaller. Set aside.
- Take out the mixing bowl from the fridge. Add the prepared celery, shrimp, shiitake mushroom, and 1 tablespoon of sesame oil to the mixed ground pork. Slowly and evenly mix everything using either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction (one direction only).
- Folding wontons.4 There are many ways to fold wontons. This is one of the Chinese ingot ways. Put a square wrapper in your palm. Add about 1 tablespoon of filing in the center of the wrapper. Wet all 4 edges. Fold the wrapper in half to create a rectangle. Firmly Press all the edges and make sure no air bubble remain. With the edges pointing outward, slightly bend the edges and at the same time slowly bring the two inner corners together. Wet the two inner corners and firmly press them together. Place the finished wontons on a baking sheet or cutting board lined with parchment paper. Continue with the remaining filling and wrappers.
- Cooking the wontons. Heat a large pot of water under medium- high. When the water boils, add the wontons to the boiling water. Using a wooden spatula, gently stir the pot to prevent any wonton from sticking to the bottom or sticking together. While wontons are being cooked, occasionally stir the pot with the same spatula. When the water boils again, the wontons are ready. Turn off the heat and carefully take them out with a slotted spoon or strainer ladle onto a plate.
- Making the soup (can be done simultaneously while cooking wontons). Prepare several large bowls. Add equal amounts of ingredients to each bowl: a few celery leaves (take out the stems if possible), 1 tablespoon of cilantro leaves, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, a pinch of ground white pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Fill each bowl half way with boiling water, mixing well. Adjust saltiness with more salt or water. Add cooked wontons to the soup and enjoy while they are hot.
- For extra uncooked wontons, transfer the entire baking sheet with the wontons to a freezer. Flash freeze them in the freezer for at least 1 hour so they become hard. Put them in a large freezer Ziploc bag and keep storing in the freezer until used. Follow the same cooking method for frozen wontons. DO NOT defrost them. When the water boils, add the frozen wontons directly to the boiling water. It takes a little longer for frozen wontons to cook.
- I used ground pork shoulder here, which has a balanced fat and lean meat ratio.
- You can get Chinese celery in pretty much any Asian grocery store. Pick the ones with green leaves.
- Shanghai wonton wrappers are quite common in Asian grocery stores. Unlike Hong Kong wonton wrappers, they are white and larger in size. The ones I bought have about 60 wrappers in each pack.
- When it comes to folding wontons for the first time, you should always start with adding smaller amount of filling to practice. Make sure the edges are sealed tightly.