by Nina Powles
The wonton, the dreamiest of all Chinese dumplings, goes by different names depending on the language or dialect. Here are three different words that all mean “wonton”, and their literal translations:
馄饨 húntun irregular-shaped dumpling
云吞 yúntun cloud swallow
抄手 chāoshǒu to fold one’s arms
I grew up with the delicate Cantonese kind, little round bundles of pork and shrimp (sometimes only shrimp) encased in a golden skin made of flour and egg so thin it’s semi-transparent. The joy is in the texture as much as the taste; soft and slippery like swallowing a cloud. They float on a bed of thin egg noodles in gingery soup. We eat them in Chinatown restaurants and crowded mall foodcourts and fish & chip shops with plastic chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other. No sound but slurping and every now and then, a sigh.
I’ve learnt that the skins of dumplings get thicker the further north you travel in China. The wontons of Shanghai are less famous outside of China, but distinctive: heavier, heartier, filled with pork rather than shrimp. These 小馄饨 (xiao huntun, simply “small wontons”) are different from the ethereal Southern Chinese version. So small that you could eat several in one mouthful. Just a tiny dollop of pork and ginger enveloped in a thicker dough made from flour, egg, salt and water, similar to the consistency of handmade pasta. I always thought they looked like small princesses dressed in gowns far too big for them.
I lived off these xiao huntun when I lived in Shanghai as a student. For a quick and comforting breakfast, lunch, dinner (or a snack in between) I went to my favourite cheap diner on the corner of the street where I lived, paid around £0.70 for a bowl of twelve and slurped them down while reading my book. An instant cure for homesickness, heartache and weariness of all kinds. I’d leave feeling stronger, warmer and more myself than before.
I used to watch the mother and daughter making wontons in the back corner of the shop, while another woman (an aunt, maybe?) lowered the tiny dumplings into a giant pot of boiling water and doled even portions into green bowls. A square-shaped wrapper in the palm, a teaspoonful of pork in the centre, then squeezed shut in one swift motion. They worked at a rate of about one wonton each per second, all while taking customers’ orders and while watching reality TV on their iPad propped up on the table between them. The women’s hands moved so fast their fingers were a blur.
Since leaving Shanghai, I miss 小馄饨 most of all. I tried to make them myself using shop-bought wrappers and a filling made from pork, garlic and ginger, but couldn’t get the folding technique quite right. They weren’t so light and ethereal as I’d dreamed –
more lumpy and wonky than small floating clouds.
But still, if I measured against the memory, my recreation was almost right. I felt the familiar warmth and glow, breathing in the smell of ginger and spring onions and steam that wafts out onto the streets of Shanghai late into the night. Plastic chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other.
My family eats wontons wherever we go. 1 o’clock in the morning at a 24-hour dim sum restaurant somewhere in suburban Toronto, since we were hungry after just getting off the plane. On Christmas Day in a shopping mall food court in Shanghai. At crowded eateries in various Chinatowns in New York, London, Singapore, San Francisco. In Chinese takeaway shops in Wellington, the small city we call home. In busy airports, at street-side stalls in my mum’s hometown in Malaysia, at home in front of the telly.
In Hong Kong in October I meet up with someone I love. We wander beneath the purple sky and neon lights towards a noodle shop called Mak’s Noodle. Like everywhere good food is eaten in big cities, the place is small and crowded and everything happens fast. I notice there’s slightly more elbow room than in other noodle shops where only locals go, perhaps to make tourists and expats feel a little more at ease – but you’re still sharing a tables with an uncle and auntie and grandpa, just as it should be. I order wantan mee, just about the only thing I can say with confidence in Cantonese, with a side plate of steamed gai lan, Chinese broccoli. These are the only two items on the menu.
Mak’s Noodle is apparently the most famous wonton noodle shop in Hong Kong and I can see why. The wontons are cloudlike and slippery with pale golden tails floating in soup that is so delicious and fortifying it sends waves of warmth right to my bones. The egg noodles are thin and crinkly, just how I like them, hard to get a good grip on with chopsticks. We eat quickly and noisily, crunching on bright green stems of gai lan. We step out onto the busy street street and stand by the shop’s front window for a moment, watching two chefs (one for noodles, one for dumplings) deep in concentration, assembling bowls of soup and lifting ladlefuls of tiny wontons into each with practiced precision. The making of a bowl of wontons is an art, just like the eating of one. We wander on through the lovely humid air.
In summer in Wellington, my friend Rose and I swim in Oriental Bay in the evening after work. The sky is gigantic and blue. I count two faint wisps of cloud above the hills. The moon has already risen by late afternoon, a shy arc just visible against deepening blue. We wriggle into our swimsuits beneath both sun and moon.
Rose swims out to the swimming platform and back several times. I dip my body three-quarters into the water and paddle gently, wary of jellyfish and the stinging cold. We dry off clumsily, becoming slowly aware of the gnawing feeling in our stomachs and a weakening in the backs of our knees. I love swimming, partly because of that particular kind of post-swim hunger which can only compared to hunger after sex. The ache that tells you if you don’t go eat something soon your limbs might liquefy. It must have something to do with the weight of water on our muscles, the strain of using parts of our body we never use on land.
Still with sand between our toes and thighs, we sit by the window of a tiny Chinese takeaway in the city. We eat bowls of wontons and noodles and chat over steam clouds. A Taste of Home – the best name for a noodle shop ever – is the only place we’ve found in Wellington that has thick, chewy hand-pulled noodles (the ones that originate in central China) and handmade wontons. We sip sugary peach juice between mouthfuls of soup and chilli oil, cheeks red and eyes watering. I balance a fat wonton between my chopsticks while wind beats against the windows. The sound and taste of home.
Nina Powles is a poet, writer and zinemaker from New Zealand, currently living in London. She is half Malaysian-Chinese.