What is a Wonton? Irregularly Shaped Pasta, Folded Arms or Swallowing Clouds. 馄饨,抄手,扁食或云吞

what is a wonton

What is a wonton? Isn’t it a little parcel of delight we enjoyed in soup, spicy oil or fried? But why is it called wonton? Is it different from dumpling?

There are many food parcels in Chinese cuisine. Besides dumplings, there are also buns and pancakes. Some are more well-known than others. For example, the shrimp dumpling 虾饺 (xia jiao / har gow in Cantonese), rice dumplings 粽子 (zong zi), the plain steamed buns 馒头 (man tou), the meat buns (肉包子), the pot stickers 锅贴 (guo tie), and more.

Wonton is the transliteration of a Cantonese name: 云吞 (yun tun). It has a poetic meaning: swallowing cloud because it resembles a cloud floating when it is cooked and served in soup. 

Wonton is essentially a type of dumpling with thin wheat wrappers boiled and served in soup. Fried wontons is a more recent variation. As for baked wontons, I think the Americans “invented” it.

In other parts of China, especially the Northern parts, it is known as 馄饨 (hun tun) where it’s meaning is much more mundane: irregularly shaped pasta. The term has been found in an ancient text known as 齊民要術 (Qi Min Yao Shu). The title means “techniques by which common people make their livelihood“. It was written around 544 BC.

Other regional names include Szechuan’s 四川抄手 (si chuan chao shou) and Taiwan’s 台湾扁食 (tai wan bian shi).

The term wonton owes its global fame to the Cantonese (a dialect group originating from the Guang Zhou province and Hong Kong). They made up the majority of early Chinese migrants to other parts of the world including the United States and United Kingdom. Many so-called Chinese names in the West are transliterations of the Cantonese names. That’s why they can be different from Mandarin, the official language of China.

Folding Won Tons In – A Poem

I wanted to share this 1999 poem written by an American-Chinese Abraham Chang. I think it captures the act of wrapping wontons so well. The imagery used are clever. Before this poem, I have never thought of wontons as flowers or babies. He ends the poem with a dilemma that many of us face — should I leave some for later?

I've seasoned the pork like I imagine my mother would - 
sesame oil, ginger, pepper, scallions chopped imperfectly. 
Sheets of doughy skin, I only have the skill to buy.

Thumb and forefinger peel 
each tender white scrap of noodle from the clinging stack. 
I pat the centers pink--spoonfuls of fragrant moistness.

Mimicking from memory: A twist, a tuck, a folding over--
a finger lick of water to seal my misshappen flowers. 

My hands powderdusted; acquainted with each new blossom. 
I line them up like newborns huddled together, waiting to be fed to their distant fathers. 

The soup bubbles to overflowing; 
I slide the dumplings in and stir them dizzy. 
Freshly drowned, swollen and glistening, steam hidden for an instant--

I set them on the table and decide how many I will save for tomorrow. 

What is a wonton?

A wonton is made up of a wrapper, a filling and the soup it is served in.

1. The wrapper

The wonton wrapper is made of wheat. An uncooked wrapper is quite firm but turns silky and soft when it is boiled and crispy when it is fried or baked. Very versatile. There are 3 basic types:

  1. wheat-based – thin and squarish
  2. wheat-based – thick, rectangular
  3. wheat with egg – thin and square

They are readily available in supermarkets although you can make the wrappers  from scratch. There are many different ways to wrap wontons. Head over How To Fold Wontons: A Round Up.

2. The filling

The charm of the wonton lies in the filling. A delightful burst of flavour and moistness when one bites into it. Wonton fillings play a very important role. Not only must the ingredients be fresh, they must be well-mixed.

The most popular ingredient is ground pork. However, ground beef, chicken, prawns, fish and tofu are also good substitutes. If you are going to use beef, chicken, or lamb, you might want to introduce a little fat so that the filling won’t be too dry. Chinese chefs usually add fatty pork to increase juiciness (now you know the secret). Another method is to add well-flavoured water or soup stock.

Steps for a well-mixed wonton filling

  1. Add the ingredients together and season appropriately
  2. Mix the ingredients until a certain stickiness occur
  3. Wrap the mixture in cling wrap and leave in the fridge to stand for about 20 minutes
  4. If mixture is too dry, add some some moisture
  5. Moisture can be water, soup stock, or stock jelly
  6. Add moisture one tablespoon at a time

3. The Wonton soup

I like my wontons in soup where the skin is boiled till silky smooth. I love the feeling of the wonton skin in my mouth and then the burst of juicy flavour when I bite into the filling.

A well-made wonton soup can enhance the flavour of the entire dish. It is usually a lightly flavoured broth or consomme. Again, there are regional differences.

How to Cook wontons?

Many wonton recipes I came across have instructions to cook wontons straight in the soups to be served. Don’t do that! Imagine all your hard work wrapping the beautiful wontons, and making a good clear flavorsome broth only to be sabotaged by boiling the wontons in the soup.

Wonton wrappers are covered with cornflour to prevent them from sticking together. If they are cooked directly in the soup, the flour will affect the flavour and texture of the soup. If you cook the wontons in the soup, there is a tendency to leave the wontons floating in the soup before serving. The wontons will turn mushy.

The correct way to cook wontons:

  1. Cook the soup as directed by the recipe
  2. Bring another pot of water to the boil. Add a little oil
  3. Drop the wontons gently into the boiling water. Initially, they will sink to the bottom. Stir the pot gently to prevent any wonton from getting stuck to the bottom or to each other
  4. Boil the wontons until they float to the surface of the water. This means the filling within the wonton is cooked
  5. Prepare the soup in a large communal soup bowl or individual soup bowls
  6. Drain and transfer the won tons directly into soup bowls for serving
  7. Garnish as desired

Avoid boiling wontons too early. Cooked wonton skins become rubbery and dry if left standing too long. It is best to boil them as close to meal time as possible.

How to Eat wontons?

In soup as part of a communal meal

Wonton soup is fairly straight forward. Make the wontons, make the soup and serve them together, garnished with some chopped spring onion or coriander leaves.

Wontons in soup can be served in a big communal bowl or in individual serving bowls. 

In a spicy sauce

The Sichuan people are very proud of their chili oils so it is small wonder they created a dish like Chili oil wontons to celebrate both. Here, wontons are served in a mixture of chili oil, black vinegar and peppercorn. Red Cook Chili Oil Wonton 红油抄手 (hong you chao shou).

With thin egg noodles

The pork wantan noodle 叉烧云吞面 (cha shao yun tun mian) is a common hawker fare in Singapore and Malaysia. It is typically made up of thin egg noodles with a portion of wontons, and barbecued pork / char siew 叉烧 (cha shao). Served dry with pickled green chilli. 

Image source: Suanie at Flickr

The Hong Kong pork wonton noodle is served in soup. You can find both versions easily in Singapore’s food centres. It is interesting to note how different the two dishes look and taste even though they bear the same name.

Image source: Alpha at Flickr

I have almost never made wonton noodle soup myself. The best can be had for a couple of dollars and a short walk away. So, I have never had the need to make my own wonton noodle soup from scratch. If you are interested to learn how to make this at home, check out for the local dry version with tofoodwithlove.com and for the Hong Kong soup version with appetiteforchina.com.

fried Snacks

Deep fried wontons make great party food. They are crispy, light, easy to eat and irresistible. Store-bought fried wontons has gotten a bad rap because many taste awful. All the more reason to make your own.

Heat up a wok of oil or fire up your deep fryer and fry them till golden brown and crisp. The secret to a great fried wonton is the wrapper. Choose the thinnest you can find. 

Serve them with a wonton dip. The simplest would be a little sweet chilli sauce.

How to store leftover wontons

Chinese recipes for wontons almost always assume you are cooking for a family party, so the amount of ingredients can be excessive. If you are only thinking of making a dozen or so, consider downsizing the quantity specified.

On the other hand, wontons are really easy to freeze and store:

  1. Arrange your extra wontons on sheets of baking paper, 1 layer per sheet. Do not stack!
  2. To prevent them from sticking to each other, dust them with cornstarch
  3. Place them inside the freezer
  4. When they are frozen, remove from fridge and baking sheet
  5. Pack in ziplock bags
  6. Label the bags with the date that they are made
  7. Return them to the freezer

Frozen wontons cannot be thawed as the wonton skins will go mushy. If they cannot be thawed, they cannot be fried. Only boiled or steamed. A visitor said she pan fried them like potstickers. Her method is to place them frozen onto a pre-heated pan. Fry till the bottoms are brown, then pour a little hot water into the pan, cover and let the wontons cook by steam. Sounds good.

To end

When I was younger, making wontons is a family affair. Grandmother will mix up a big batch of filling and we will all sit around wrapping. It was great fun. We made a lot of noise as well as wontons.

I had a few cook-and-eat parties while studying in Melbourne: steamboat, laksa, and wontons. Getting together to cook up a storm is good fun and a great way to bond with friends.

Wontons are easy to make and cook together. Get together to make it. Then, boil it, bake it, or fry it. Finally, eat it over rounds of games and sharing.

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Happy cooking!

Featured Photo by Max Griss on Unsplash

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