Easy, festive dishes for Lunar New Year at home

By Genevieve Ko, The New York Times

The last time my parents, siblings and I traveled together to Hong Kong — in 1997, to witness the handover from Britain back to China — my dad took us to the part of Kowloon where he grew up. At one point, he slipped down an alley, alone, to visit his favorite childhood wonton stand and returned with a contentment I coveted.

Despite the uncertainty around us, he looked utterly at peace. That’s the power of wonton soup.

In Hong Kong, you can find wonton soup in high-end dining rooms or, more commonly, slung casually as a quick meal, as it is in Chinatowns around the world. Its ubiquity may be why it isn’t often served for the special feasts of Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Jan. 22 and ushers in the Year of the Rabbit.

To my mind, wontons are ideal for a new year party precisely because they’re an everyday comfort food. They’re so closely intertwined with Hong Kong and Cantonese cuisine that they can fill the loss of home for immigrants like my parents. For someone like me, born on the other side of the world but tied to the culture, they’re a tangible connection to family and homeland. And for anyone who loves wontons (that’s everyone, right?), the process of making them from scratch is as much a celebration as eating them.

The presence of wontons on Chinese New Year is nothing new: According to Grace Young, an award-winning cookbook author and culinary historian, they were eaten for the holiday in ancient times because they symbolize wealth, given their resemblance to gold ingots. It’s the same reason other dumplings are standard fare for the holiday.

To clarify, wontons are dumplings, but not all dumplings are wontons. And not all wontons are Cantonese — there are thicker-skinned versions in northern China and spicy ones from Sichuan in the southwest, among others — but the Hong Kong style, distinguished by silky wrappers and shrimp in the stuffing, is arguably the best. “The Cantonese wonton makes an art form of it,” Young said.

Shrimp bring juiciness to the filling, which is usually bound by ground or finely minced fatty pork. Young said that the shrimp “should be crisp, not mushy or soft or mealy.” That snappy freshness is attainable in shrimp from seafood markets in Hong Kong and other waterside regions but harder to find otherwise. To replicate that crunch, I use my mom’s trick of salting peeled shrimp, then letting them sit for a bit. That step helps draw out excess water from the crustaceans’ freeze-and-thaw journey to the kitchen, making them firmer. It also amplifies their subtle sweetness.

A hallmark of Cantonese cuisine is highlighting ingredients’ inherent flavors, so I season my filling simply — with just a few sauces, scallions and ginger. Some cooks add diced fresh water chestnuts for more crunch and rehydrated dried shiitakes or wood ear mushrooms for chew.

Premade square wrappers, sometimes labeled “Hong Kong-style,” can be found in many supermarkets and work great, but if they’re unavailable, preparing the dough from scratch requires only pantry ingredients. Because Cantonese wonton wrappers are thin, they let the filling shine. Distinct from thicker dumpling skins made with only flour and water, they include egg, which yields a richer, more supple dough that can roll into extremely flat sheets. Pressing the dough through a pasta machine makes the technique especially easy. (Rolling by hand takes more muscle and patience.)

Both store-bought and from-scratch wrappers can be pinched into endless shapes. While the neatly tucked look of ingots are ideal for deep-fried wontons, a free-form fold is best for wontons in soup. A corner of the wrapper should be pleated over the marble of filling, and the remaining dough should flow off the end like the train of a wedding gown. When boiled, then floated in soup, that golden wrapper will ripple on the surface and taste like the most delicate slip of a noodle. In Cantonese, “wonton” translates to “swallowing a cloud,” and these look and taste that ethereal. Add long, wiry wonton noodles to the bowl, and you have a complete meal, along with the promise of longevity for the new year.

The “dessert” most often offered after a Cantonese meal is fresh fruit. For Chinese New Year, mandarin oranges are served because their name is a homophone for gold in Cantonese, symbolizing prosperity, and they’re often chased with candied nuts and seeds. But to follow simple, traditional wontons, here’s a simple twist on tradition: sesame shortbread that bake the nutty black sesame seeds found in Chinese New Year candies and sweets, like tang yuan, into buttery cookies.

While cookies may not be customary for the holiday, they represent the ever-changing nature of Hong Kong’s food. In her seminal book, “New Cantonese Cooking,” Eileen Yin-Fei Lo wrote, “Only the food of Canton has no limitations, no restrictions. It is a cookery open to experimentation and creativeness.” Crumbly and not too sweet, these modern treats capture the spirit of renewal for the holiday, a time to reset with something new.

“Coming from a tiger year — and it did feel pretty ferocious — I think that we’re bound to have good fortune,” Young said about the coming year of the rabbit, which some predict will be calm and peaceful. There’s no better way to bring that on than with a beloved classic dish and a brand-new one.

Recipe: Wonton Wrappers

By Genevieve Ko

Hong Kong-style wonton wrappers are distinguished by their small square shape, thinness and the addition of eggs to a flour-based dough. The eggs yield a richer, more supple dough, which helps it roll into nearly paper-thin sheets. After they’re wrapped into wontons and cooked, they taste like a delicate noodle, allowing the flavors of the filling to shine. Premade wrappers are sold in the refrigerated section of Chinese and other markets, and those options work great. But if they’re not available nearby, they can be made at home with basic pantry ingredients. A pasta machine makes it easy to roll the dough, but rolling by hand works, too.

Yield: About 58 (3-inch) wrappers

Total time: 1 hour, plus 1 hour’s resting

Ingredients

  • 2 cups/260 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons warm water
  • Cornstarch, for dusting

Preparation

1. Mix the flour and salt on a clean work surface or in a large bowl using chopsticks or a fork. Mound the mixture, then form a well in the center. Break the eggs into the well and beat lightly until swirled yellow. Add the water and beat to incorporate, then gradually draw in the flour from the edges of the well while mixing gently.

2. Once all of the flour has been mixed with the wet ingredients, gather the shaggy dough and stray dry bits with your hands and knead together. Continue kneading until smooth, evenly yellow and slightly elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. The dough should hold together but not be sticky. Divide the dough evenly in half and pat each half into a rectangle.

3. Loosely wrap each piece of dough in plastic wrap and let stand for 1 hour at room temperature. This will help the dough relax and make it easier to roll.

4. If you have a pasta roller, press one piece of dough flat, then pass it through each setting of the roller twice, from the widest to the narrowest setting, to create a rectangle 5 to 6 inches wide and 39 to 40 inches long. If you don’t have a pasta roller, flatten a piece of dough and roll with a pin on a clean, unfloured surface. In both cases, the dough shouldn’t be at all sticky, but if it is, very lightly dust it with cornstarch. If the dough keeps springing back, let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes before rolling again and very gently stretch it with your hands as well. You want it to be as thin as possible without tearing.

5. Using a ruler and pizza wheel or sharp knife, cut the rectangle into 26 to 30 (3-inch) squares by cutting it in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 13 to 15 even pieces. Very lightly dust the wrappers with cornstarch, then stack and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Repeat with the other piece of dough. The wrappers are best if used right away to form wontons, but they can be stored wrapped in plastic wrap, then placed in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Recipe: Wontons

By Genevieve Ko

Wontons are dumplings, but not all dumplings are wontons. And not all wontons are Cantonese — there are thicker-skinned versions in northern China and spicy ones from Sichuan in the southwest, among others — but Hong Kong wontons, distinguished by silky wrappers and shrimp in the stuffing, are arguably the most delicious and nuanced. In Cantonese cooking, the inherent flavors of ingredients are meant to shine, so this formula seasons the shrimp and pork lightly with classic sauces, ginger and scallions. The filling can be varied to your tastes: You can add diced water chestnuts for crunch, chopped rehydrated dried shiitake or other Chinese mushrooms for their meatiness, or swap minced fish or scallops for the pork. Once the wontons are wrapped, they can be boiled for soup, fried or steamed, or frozen to cook in the future.

Yield: 50 to 60 wontons

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces peeled, deveined shrimp (any size)
  • Coarse kosher or sea salt
  • 1 (1/2-inch) piece fresh ginger
  • 8 ounces ground pork
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce, preferably light (see Tip)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground white or black pepper
  • 50 to 60 wonton wrappers — preferably thin, egg-based, Hong Kong-style wrappers (see Tips)

Preparation

1. Coarsely chop the shrimp into 1/2-inch pieces, then toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt in a colander until evenly coated. Let stand while preparing the remaining filling ingredients. This will both flavor the shrimp and draw out the excess moisture so that they end up snappy in the cooked wontons.

2. Using a ginger grater or Microplane, finely grate 2 teaspoons ginger into a large bowl. Using your fingers, press the grated ginger to squeeze out 1 teaspoon ginger juice; discard the solids. Stir in the pork, scallions, cornstarch, oyster sauce, wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, pepper and 1 teaspoon salt until evenly mixed. Using a paper towel, pat the shrimp very dry. Add to the pork and stir until evenly distributed.

3. Set up an assembly line for forming wontons by placing the bowl of filling next to the wrappers and a small dish of water and lining a sheet pan with parchment for the wrapped wontons. If a wrapper tears over the filling during assembly, it can be discarded.

4. To shape wontons for wonton soup: Place a heaping spoonful of filling near one corner of a wrapper. You want to try to get as much filling in there as possible, about 1 tablespoon, but you can start with a smaller amount for easier folding. Using your fingertip, wet the wrapper corner nearest the filling, then fold that corner over the filling to enclose it, pleating the wrapper around the filling and pressing that corner just past the center of the remaining wrapper. You should end up with a bump of enclosed filling and a pleated tail of wrapper. Place on the prepared pan and repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.

5. To shape wontons for deep-frying, place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of the wrapper. Using your fingertip, wet the borders of the wrapper, then fold it in half to form a rectangle or a triangle, encasing the filling and making sure there are no air pockets around it. Take two corners on the long side and bring them together to meet in the center over the filling, using water if needed to make the corners stick and hold. Place on the prepared pan and repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.

6. Once you’ve filled all of the wontons, you can prepare as many as you’d like immediately, boiling them for soup or deep-frying for a snack. The rest can be frozen uncovered on the sheet tray until solid, about 2 hours. Transfer them to an airtight container and freeze for up to 2 months. Cook straight from the freezer, adding a few minutes of cooking time.

Tips

Chinese light soy sauce isn’t the same as low- or less-sodium soy sauce. It’s lighter in color and also saltier. If using regular soy sauce, increase the amount to 1 tablespoon (and expect a slightly darker filling).

Hong Kong-style wonton wrappers are distinguished by their small square shape, thinness and the addition of eggs to a flour-based dough. They’re sold in the refrigerated section of Chinese and other markets, and those options work great. If they’re not available nearby, they can be made at home with basic pantry ingredients using previous recipe for Wonton Wrappers.

Recipe: Fried Wontons

By Genevieve Ko

Crunchy on the outside with a juicy shrimp filling, these deep-fried wontons are the ultimate party food. To make sure they cook to the ideal golden brown crispness, avoid crowding the pan of hot oil. Each batch takes only a few minutes to fry, and the wontons still taste great when served warm. Better yet, welcome guests into the kitchen and serve the wontons as they’re ready. The spicy sweet-and-sour dipping sauce can be prepared ahead, making this party dish even easier.

Yield: 50 wontons

Total time: 40 minutes

Ingredients

For the Dipping Sauce:

  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sambal oelek, Sriracha or other red chile sauce
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

For the Wontons:

  • 4 to 6 cups peanut or canola oil, for frying
  • 50 fresh or unthawed frozen wontons

Preparation

1. Make the sauce: Combine the sugar, vinegar, sambal, garlic and salt in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer rapidly, stirring occasionally, until syrupy, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a dipping bowl and cool to room temperature. The sauce can be covered and refrigerated for up to a week; bring back to room temperature before serving.

2. Fry the wontons: Fill a heavy saucepan with oil to a depth of 2 inches. Heat over medium-high until a deep-fry thermometer registers 360 degrees. Working in batches, add the dumplings to the hot oil (avoid crowding) and fry, turning to evenly cook, just until golden brown and crisp, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve hot or warm with the dipping sauce.

Recipe: Wonton Soup

By Genevieve Ko

Wonton soup and wonton noodle soup are two mainstays of Cantonese cuisine available in restaurants across the world. They’re great slurped when dining out and even more comforting when prepared and eaten at home. Here, bok choy stands in for the usual dark green gai lan or choy sum vegetables to lend its natural sweetness to the soup. How you season the soup is up to you. If you’re starting with an intensely flavorful homemade broth, you may not need to add anything.

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • Salt
  • 2 quarts chicken stock, preferably homemade (see Tips)
  • 12 baby bok choy, cut in halves or quarters lengthwise
  • 8 ounces fresh wonton noodles (optional)
  • 20 fresh or unthawed frozen wontons
  • 1 scallion, thinly sliced
  • Soy sauce, red vinegar, chile oil or chile crisp, for serving

Preparation

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In another large saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the bok choy to the stock, immersing all of it, then immediately turn the heat to the lowest setting. Let stand until ready to serve, 5 to 10 minutes. Season broth with salt, to taste.

2. If serving with noodles, cook the noodles in the boiling water according to the package’s directions. Transfer to serving bowls with tongs or chopsticks and bring the water back to a boil. Drop the wontons into the boiling water and gently stir to make sure they don’t stick to one another or to the bottom of the pot. When the water returns to a rapid boil, add 2 cups cold water, then adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Once the wontons float on the surface, continue to simmer for 2 minutes. The dough should look slightly translucent.

3. Using a spider or slotted spoon, divide the wontons among the serving bowls, then divide the bok choy and broth among the bowls. Serve immediately with scallion and soy sauce, vinegar, chile oil or chile crisp.

Tips

To make homemade chicken stock for wonton soup, combine 8 ounces chicken wings, 8 ounces ground pork, 3 slices of ginger, 2 cut-up scallions and 7 cups water in a large pot. (Add an ounce of dried Chinese mushrooms or dried scallops and a whole star anise, if you have them.) Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, then immediately turn down the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Simmer, skimming any foam on top, for 35 minutes. Strain, discard the solids and season the stock to taste. For a quick shortcut to more flavorful soup, simmer 5 cups of store-bought chicken stock with 2 ginger slices and 2 cut-up scallions for 15 minutes.

Recipe: Black Sesame Shortbread

By Genevieve Ko

Snappy and crumbly, these not-too-sweet cookies are the sort of treats that make you take a deep breath and slow down. Immediately lovable and layered with complex nutty, toasty and savory notes from black sesame, they’re great with tea. The slice-and-bake dough comes together entirely in a food processor (only one bowl to wash!) and can be refrigerated as a wrapped log for a few days before baking.

Yield: About 24 cookies

Total time: 45 minutes, plus chilling and cooling

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup/100 grams roasted black sesame seeds (see Tips)
  • 1/3 cup/80 grams granulated sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
  • 1 cup/132 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup/114 grams cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, for sprinkling

Preparation

1. In a food processor, process the black sesame seeds, sugar and salt until the mixture forms tiny clumps, about 3 minutes. The fat from the seeds should release, and the blend should go from the texture of wet sand to on the verge of becoming pasty. Scrape the bowl and add the flour. Pulse until the flour is evenly incorporated with the seeds into a sandy mixture.

2. Add the butter and vanilla, and pulse until the mixture goes from coarse crumbs to large clumps. Transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap and firmly squeeze, then roll into a 2-inch-diameter log. Wrap tightly and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 1/2 hours or up to 3 days.

3. When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees with racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. Cut the chilled log into 1/3-inch-thick slices and place on the prepared sheets, spacing 1/2 inch apart. If any bits of dough crumble off while slicing, pat them back into the rounds. Sprinkle the tops with the white sesame seeds.

5. Bake, switching the positions of the sheets halfway through, until the edges are brown and the tops golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Cool completely on the sheets on wire racks. The shortbread will keep in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Tips

Black sesame seeds, particularly ones from Japanese brands, are often sold toasted. If you can find only raw black sesame seeds, toast them by stirring them in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant and popping, 2 to 3 minutes. Cool completely before grinding. Taste the black sesame seeds before baking to make sure they’re not rancid; they should be nutty and delicious.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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