When I was a kid, my comfort food was wonton soup. For the longest time, this fact was a source of slight shame for me, as I was always jealous of my white friends and their unmistakably American comfort foods. Meatloaf, mac & cheese, baked potatoes; these were pillars of an assimilated life, one free of awkward cultural missteps. Of course, now as a reasonably well-adjusted Chinese-American nearing my 30s, I am able to look back on my misplaced cultural-identity- related insecurity and laugh. How could meatloaf or baked potatoes ever stack up gastronomically to the savory, delicately flavored goodness of a bowl of wontons? Just writing about those tiny soup filled flour pockets of savory meat and veggies fills me with serious nostalgia for the various ways in which this adaptable and ubiquitous food enhanced my life, whether in a steaming bowl of chicken broth accompanied by bok choy, fried on a platter with spiced vinegar or plainly steamed in a dish sprinkled with soy sauce.
Wonton soup was my version of chicken noodle soup – mom would bring me a bowl in bed when I was too sick to move or swallow. 7 AM wakeups on Saturday for ‘mandatory’ (read: father-enforced) Chinese language school were made bearable by the thought of coming downstairs and being presented with a steaming bowl of the savory and carefully constructed treats. The elegance with which mom prepared and wrapped her wontons was peerless and would have probably earned her the praise of ancient Chinese poets, who did in fact praise the fineness of a well-wrapped wonton in poems written during the early Tang and Song dynasties.
Wonton-making at my house was a full-family activity, as dad would season and mix the minced meet and vegetable filling and mom and I would attempt to wrap the wontons. Admittedly, my clumsy efforts were no match for her graceful movements: she would place just a dab of filling on top of a square thin flour wrapper, wet two diagonal corners with water, simply twist and pinch, and a perfect wonton was made. Mom’s go-to recipe clearly reflected our family’s roots in Shanghai, where wontons are commonly made with minced meat and bok choy and served in chicken soup. However, she was also known to serve wontons with a variety of other twists, such as in noodle soup (Guangdong), fried (Hong Kong) or in hot and spicy oil (Sichuan).
Legends state that an ancient Chinese cook stumbled upon the wonton by forgetting to punch holes in the top of a stuffed meat bun (an even older and more traditional food). He called his accidental invention “huidin,” a name which meant “chaos” in ancient Chinese and later iterated to “wonton” in modern Chinese. As the wonton migrated south, it diverged further from its meat bun ancestry and took on some distinct characteristics: a thin-flour wrapper that would become transparent after cooking, unlike the thick flour wrappers surrounding dumplings and a multi-ingredient filling that contained both meat and vegetables and sometimes even medicine. Indeed, a Han dynasty (c. 206 BCE-220 CE) physician named Zhang Zhongjing actually stuffed his wontons with medicinal herbs to help cure villagers in his hometown of frostbite. Zhang's success with the food led him to catalogue it as a form of traditional medicine in a seminal work of ancient Chinese science, the Compendium of Materia Medica (本草纲目).
Maybe the wonton’s medicinal ancestry was what led mom to immediately turn to wonton soup when she fell sick with cancer. Perhaps she knew that there were inherent medicinal benefits to these tiny but savory little nuggets of meat and vegetables. Or perhaps, she wanted to hold on, as I did, to our shared experience of wrapping wontons together in the kitchen on Saturday morning for just a little longer.