There is always a batch of wontons in my freezer. Always.
While most of my friends stock up on Mee Goreng or Nissin noodles when they're on special, chances are I'd be sitting at my desk endlessly wrapping wontons, freezing them one tray at a time.
I don't know.
Growing up in a family that ate predominantly Shanghainese food even though we lived in Hong Kong, the difference between Chinese cuisine styles have occasionally stumped my 2-and-a-half year old self. Like why are the wonton wrappers we use white instead of yellow? Why do we not put prawn mince in the filling? And why do we have veges in the filling? And why are wonton wrappers square while dumpling (jiao zi) wrappers are round?
Why? Why? Why?
...and that's how my nickname, yygall, came into existence.
And also signified how much interest I had in food since a young age.
I remember on one occasion insisting on stir-frying my own fried rice, while mum held me in her arms. And on another cool spring day watching mum wrap wontons at amazing speed. I tried to learn, but honestly can't remember how mine turned out. It probably wasn't until age 7 or so that I could finally do it and the resulting wontons (at least, cooked ones) were indistinguishable from Mum's. To this day our uncooked wontons still look different: most of the time hers would have 2 or 3 dimples, while mine would have 1 or 2. But I've gotten much better at making the filling: one taste, and the difference is there.
Celery, carrot, waterchestnut, shiitake mushroom and pork wontons
Wonton fillings are various, and occasionally unexpected. In Shanghai, a lot of "fast food" stores would have a small collection of fillings, from the 三鮮(San Xian, with pork, dried freshwater prawn or kai yang and preserved vegetable; another popular combination is freshwater fish, prawn and pork mince) to various 菜肉 (vegetable and meat) combinations, depending on what's in season. Most vegetables can be used in the filling, though traditionally leafy greens that aren't bitter, are fresh and fragrant are preferred.
One of my favourites is 薺菜肉餛飩. Shepard's purse is quite popular in Shanghai-style home cooking, for its fragrance and texture. Only the youngest of shoots are used, though; and it's almost never served to pregnant or breastfeeding women, or those with heart disorders (Chinese medicine principles). Another favourite is water celery and pork: water celery is like a smaller, condensed version of normal supermarket variety celery, with most stalks not longer than 30cm and as thick as a pencil. It's refreshing, light, crunchy and oh-so-fragrant; something I can eat every day and not get sick of. Ever.
But, having not yet found water celery yet, this combination of water chestnuts and celery is almost as good. It's crunchy, refreshing, colourful, and fragrant; the combination of flavours and aromas from the pork and shiitake is almost perfect. And the carrot...it does little in terms of taste and texture, but adds that extra little something visually: after all, we eat with the eyes as well as with our sense of taste and smell.
Why have instant noodles, when you can have this instead?
Celery and Pork Wontons
2 packets of Double Merino Shanghai Wonton wrappers
500g pork mince
1/4 celery, finely chopped
10-12 water chestnuts*, smashed then chopped
1/3 carrot, finely diced
4 medium-sized dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked overnight, finely diced
1 Tbsp Shaoxing cooking wine
2 tspn salt
large pinch of finely ground white pepper
2 tspn sugar
1 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp sesame oil
*Frozen water chestnuts are available in the freezer section of some, if not most Asian groceries. They're white, round, almost pebble like in appearance. To thaw, just pop a few in a freezer bag, tie it up, then submerge in a bowl of cold water - this prevents them from being overly waterlogged. Pare off any of the skin that may be on (it's dark brown and woody and inedible), smash with the back of a knife (preferably a cleaver of sorts), then roughly chop.
In a large mixing bowl, place the pork mince, cooking wine, salt, pepper, sugar, and mix through. Beat in the egg and water, mix vigorously until the mince is reminiscent of a sticky dough. Add the sesame oil and mix through til well dispersed. Add the chopped vegetables and mix thoroughly.
For more even distribution of filling, divide the mix into 16 lots (halve the mix 4 times), each lot should have enough filling for 5 wontons.
To wrap, the easiest way is to fold diagonally, then press the 2 corners on the hypotenuse (longest side) together in the middle.
To cook, place the wontons in a large pot of boiling water (no more than 20 at a time), stirring gently but constantly during the first few minutes on medium to high heat. Once it returns to the boil, add 1/2 cup of cold tap water for every 10 wontons. Once it comes to boil again, turn off the heat and serve immediately.
The traditional base for wontons is pork bone soup, but it chicken soup, or even watered down soy sauce with a smidgeon of sesame oil can be used. No dipping sauce required.