Grandpa’s Wontons 阿公馄饨

Wonton — a common household dish symbolic of the evolving history of China and its people. This is my story of wontons.

Wontons are familiar to almost every subculture in China. It has the soul of northern style cuisine that focuses on sustenance and warmth, yet it has the southern passion for flavour and appetite for fresh ingredients. As you move from north to south, east to west, the wontons themselves adapt. In interior China, wontons are called chaoshou 抄手 and is famously mixed with chili oil, vinegar and spices in Sichuan. In the fertile Yangtze River Delta, the local vegetable of the season outshines the pork of the Shanghainese wonton 大馄饨. Further south, Cantonese wontons 云吞 are stuffed with fresh prawns caught from the sea.

There is a Chinese saying that goes 靠山吃山 靠水吃水 (kào shān chī shān, kào shuǐ chī shuǐ), which roughly translates to live on the mountain, eat off the mountain; live by the water, eat from the water. More meaningfully, it is saying that you should live on what your environment provides and live within the means of your given circumstances. A simple saying that emphasizes the adaptability and frugality of the Chinese cuisine and the Chinese people.

I was born in an ancient city called Wuxi 无锡 located in a prosperous region tucked between the longest river in Asia (Yangtze River 长江) and one of the largest freshwater lakes in China (Lake Tai 太湖). The old city was always very prosperous thanks to its fertile soil, intricate waterways, rich culture and history. My ancestors (无锡虞氏) are all from this area as well, and my parental side of the family can be traced back to the Yuan Dynasty (says my dad). No one has left the region en masse. They had everything they needed for centuries.

When my parents were growing up, protein was terribly scarce, so they relied on their environment to feed them. My mom’s brothers often swam in the local river to catch fish and collect river snails. My dad’s brother often rolled up his pants to wade through rice paddies for frogs and eels. After China opened it’s doors to the world, an abundance of opportunities spilled over from Shanghai. Wuxi, sometimes referred to as Little Shanghai 小上海 was quick to pick up commerce and industry, and for all of my childhood, the air was dusty and the canals were polluted.

My parents outside of my grandparent’s house in the countryside in Changshu 常熟 in 1988.

With my dad working in Qingdao 青岛, and my mom working and taking night classes, I was often left with my grandparents in the countryside. The countryside was beautiful. The vegetable fields surrounded all the classic, Suzhou style houses, and I would spend all my days running around with the other village kids. My “extracurricular activities” were feeding my grandparent’s ducks and goat, rummaging the water fields to find water caltrops (lingjiao 菱角) for a snack. When the ducks waddled back to their coop for food, I would waddle back to my grandparents’ house. My grandpa would be inside reading a newspaper, while facing the yard so he could see us. My grandma would be sitting out front, wrapping wontons next to a coal stove. I often helped her out and tried to make a few. Child-Angie’s wonton were pretty unimpressive.

The shape of wontons from the Jiangnan 江南 (lit. translation: south of the Yangtze River), are almost a symbol of the region’s wealth. They are filled with pork and vegetables, and wrapped to look like gold or silver ingots 元宝 . A traditional filling that I ate growing up uses a wild vegetable called “Shepard’s purse” or jicai 荠菜. When my mom was growing up on the countryside, my grandma would send her around the fields to forage them for dinner (they are considered weeds in the vegetable fields). It’s my favourite filling because I have yet to have it fresh anywhere else in the world.

Silver ingots from the Reign of Daoguang, 1821–1851 during the Qing Dynasty. Photo sourced from zjgmuseum.com

When my mom’s immigration application was accepted and her workload had lessened, I moved back to the city to live with my mom. I had trouble adjusting to the city life after having spent three years and all my summers in the countryside. I wasn’t used to sitting indoors for almost ten hours a day, so I would constantly get in trouble for fidgeting and daydreaming in class. My teacher would make me stand in my desk for hours during class, and if I talked back and protested, I would get my hands slapped with a ruler. The pain was tolerable, but the humiliation as the “unruly village kid” was unbearable. Being a top student in the townships, where I had the highest exam scores in all of the region, to being an average student in the city was debilitating for my confidence as a 7-year-old.

Kids in the city didn’t play after school. They went to after-school programs like English or advanced maths because parents were already worrying about university. Without friends to play with and fields to play in, the only thing I looked forward to after school was when my mom and I stopped by a local farmer’s market on the way home. My mom would go to the butchers and get a fresh (live) chicken, and I would sit down at one of the many wonton stalls.

A typical wonton eatery in China. Picture sourced from dxhtml.com

These wonton stalls are never fancy establishments. It was always one or two aunties, with thin metal tables and plastic stools. They would fold wontons at the next table and chat with me just like my grandma did. It’s funny that wontons were the one thing to have stayed constant in my life at the time. After a while, the aunties knew me by name and would have the wontons ready for Xiao Tian Tian 小恬恬 to eat every day. What can I say, I was pretty cute!

About a year after moving back to the city, my mom received her permanent residency papers, and we prepared for immigration. We moved to the countryside to spend more time with family before moving to the other side of the world, where we would have no one. My mom was sitting idle too, so my grandma told her to learn how to be a better cook. It was a family affair to make fun of my mom’s cooking. To my request, she agreed to learn to make my grandpa’s famous wontons. We call it AehKon WenDen 阿公馄饨 — aehkon is grandpa in the Wu dialect.

阿公馄饨 — My grandpa’s wontons. Freshly wrapped, ready to go into the pot. Photo taken by my mom in 2017.

My grandpa begins the process by taking out two cleavers and his giant chopping board, which is pretty much a sanded down hunk of tree. He chops pieces of pork belly and loin until it becomes ‘ground pork’. Ground pork from the store was seen as lower quality, and he wants only the best for his family. The veggie of choice goes on top of the minced meat, and Aehkon would incorporate the veggies into the meat with his cleavers. The sound of the cleavers hacking away was almost tuneful, like Chinese drums (tanggu 堂鼓); the stance and arm-work was nearly identical too. No eggs or flour are needed to bind the two main ingredients, because what else are cleavers for?

In March of 2000, my parents said their tearful goodbyes to our families in China, and I a tearful goodbye to my dog, who hid under the table and refused to come out. We were driven to Shanghai to take our very first flight, ever, to begin our life in Vancouver, Canada. Poetically, we followed the waters of the Yangtze River to Shanghai and out onto the Pacific Ocean. In reality, we sat in economy in a steel hull, where I couldn’t handle the motion sickness. We landed in Canada after a terrible eleven hours and several plays of Not One Less on loop. I drifted in and out of sleep, catching tidbits of that movie. I couldn’t even listen to the audio, but I still remember the plot — a young girl from a rural village ventures into the city on a journey to find her missing student. The girl, who is still a child herself, has to take on obstacles beyond her age. Of course, the parallels between the movie and my own life went over my head — I was only nine, after all.

After a nap on the carpeted floor of the immigration office at YVR, I had my first meal in Canada — a Whopper Jr. sandwich at the arrivals terminal. It wasn’t bad. It just didn’t taste like home. A few days of a fast-food-only diet later, my parents finally had time to make some home cooked food 家常菜. Low on income and high on spirits, the three of us walked for nearly an hour to Chinatown, to splurge on Chinese kitchen tools and spices. With heavy bags and backpacks full of the usual necessities 油盐酱醋, we walked up that steep hill on Main Street, back to our apartment in Mount Pleasant. My dad hacked some pork and Shanghai bok choy into bits on a plastic chopping board, and my mom and I wrapped the wontons. It wasn’t as good as my grandpa’s wontons, but at least we were trying.

The transition to life in Canada wasn’t easy for my family, but that’s a long story for another time. Many years later, I sit here and write about my love of wontons and what they mean to me. They are more than just a dumpling, more than just an efficient delivery system of your three main macro nutrients…Wontons remind me of both of my homes, the one that I was born in, and the one that I was shaped in.

Folding wontons has also become a tradition in our household here in Vancouver. We will make wontons when it’s Lunar New Year, when it’s cold outside, or whenever we feel like it. Of course, our recipe is no longer as labour-intensive as my grandpa’s. Though they might not be as delicious or as authentic, we have learned to eat with what we have. We learned to adapt to our environment, to 靠山吃山 靠水吃水 .

Bonus Food Recommendation:

This article means a lot to me as there are quite a bit of details about my personal life. As a thank you for reading my article, here’s a bonus food recommendation!

There is a stall in Crystal Mall that I often visit when I’m craving a bowl. You’ll spot it as soon as you go up the escalators because there is always an auntie in the front folding them at the speed of light. In the kitchen, the uncle stands over a giant, hot wok. I highly recommend the jicai wonton 荠菜大云吞 (vegetable & pork wonton soup). First bite, and I was brought back to my childhood — I wanted to jump over the glass pane to hug them! And maybe steal their recipe.

Shanghai Fortune Cuisine in Crystal Mall. Photo from the Sunny Blog, have a look!

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