In Cantonese (China) they’re called cloud swallows because they float like tiny clouds in soup. Sichuan cuisine calls them folded arms. In Mandarin they’re huntun.
In English they’re wontons.
What’s a wonton? It’s simple. Take thin dough, add filling, and fold them in a variety of styles. Cook or steam in broth, deep fry in oil, or bake. There are fried wontons, crab Rangoon (fried wontons filled with cream cheese and crab), wonton skin pizza, and strawberry Nutella wontons. The variations are as diverse as a chef’s creativity.
If you ever wondered about those golden, crispy “noodles” served free at most Chinese restaurants – they’re usually deep-fried wonton skins.
Wontons have a long and colorful history. Their greatest feature is the flexibility to adapt to different cuisines – like Indonesian pangsit, Thailand kiao, and Philippines pinsec frito. Eat them in soup, fried, as a snack, or with a tangy sauce. You can even find them stuffed with ice cream!
Almost three thousand years ago, Yang Xiong, a famous Chinese Han Dynasty poet and philosopher, wrote about a type of cake called tun. At the time, wontons were known as soup cakes.
According to Tasteatlas.com “many sources suggest that the origins of wontons date back to the Han Dynasty.” They were used in ancestor worship as well as “offerings to the spirits of the deceased.”
One legend talks about the Huns, fourth to sixth century nomadic warriors. The Huns loved to bully the Northern Chinese. Their leaders were “Hun” and “Tun.” Hun-tun represented chaos. According to author Emma Federer, “the Northern Chinese people buried their anger in food, eating away at their enemies as a coping mechanism.”
Some things never change.
Many food historians trace wonton origins to the Qing Dynasty in China (1644 – 1911). It was an absolute monarchy and the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history. Wontons were food for the rich.
Things changed when Chinese immigrated to the U.S. and around the world. They brought the recipe for wontons with them. Cantonese immigrants were probably the first to bring wontons to North America.
Wontons were an instant success.
Chinese immigrants found work in everything from the railroads, agriculture, and manufacturing.
Restaurants in Chinatowns across the nation featured wontons. Chinese food was popular during the 1849 California Gold Rush. One in every five prospectors was Chinese. They built cookshops to make their ethnic foods. Racism exploded. The newspapers condemned Chinese immigrants, calling them inferior and immoral. Rioters attacked the Chinese. On October 24, 1871 – the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre – rioters brutally murdered 18 Chinese men. It didn’t stop the hate – instead anti-Chinese sentiment increased.
In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by congress and signed by President Chester Arthur. It prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers for ten years – excluding merchants, teachers, students, travelers, and diplomats.
Chinese food and wontons persisted.
It was “cool” to dine out in the cookshops of Chinatown. New Chinese restaurants often catered to non-Chinese diners. Bigots couldn’t tolerate it. The Exclusion Act was extended in various forms until it was finally repealed in 1943.
Chinese food and restaurants had already become established.
Consider this: Chinese food (and wontons) were popular in America well before hot dogs and hamburgers!
These days creative chefs put everything inside wonton skins – from vegan curry and Philly cheesesteak to Buffalo chicken. There are thousands of different recipes ranging from the wontons we know to the more exotic like Shanghai Wonton Soup, jalapeno avocado wontons, and apple pie wontons. Amazon offers hundreds of books on wontons, take-out Chinese food costumes, and wonton dog toys. You can find plush wontons, keychains, and pillows.
Joey Chestnut, the famous eating champ, set a world record by eating 380 wontons in 8 minutes. He was followed by Tim Janus who downed 310 wontons in 8 minutes.
I don’t suggest you try to compete. Just enjoy what’s in your bowl.