Ramen, pho, matzo ball, borscht – every culinary tradition has a favourite comfort soup that warms the heart as much as it fills the belly. In Cantonese cuisine, as I only recently discovered in the most roundabout way and perhaps in the nick of time, it’s wonton-noodle soup.
I was in Toronto this summer when I met Jonathan Cheung, a native Vancouverite who now lives in the “Chinese-restaurant wasteland” of Montreal, where he owns Appetite for Books, a cookbook store. He had just touched down in Toronto, but was already licking his lips and heading straight for Chinatown to slurp a bowl, or few.
“Not the little plate of deep-fried wontons that comes with your $8 lunch,” he laughed.
The wonton-noodle soup of his childhood memories, the food that sustained him through his teenage years, the first dish he orders whenever he goes to Hong Kong – that wonton soup is a full-meal deal consisting of clear broth piled high with fatty braised brisket, springy vermicelli and big, bouncy shrimp dumplings, “almost like meatballs wrapped in a noodle.”
It’s the one dish, Mr. Cheung waxed rhapsodically, that he and almost anyone of Cantonese descent craves the most.
Huh? I eat a lot of Chinese food. I judge the Chinese Restaurant Awards. As soon as I returned to Vancouver, I called my friend and fellow judge Lee Man: “Why don’t I know about wonton-noodle soup?”
“Ah, that’s because it’s hard to find in Vancouver these days,” Mr. Man explained. “Or at least it’s hard to find a good version.” (As I later learned, Mr. Cheung didn’t find a good version in Toronto either.)
“It was a big deal for the Hong Kong diaspora when I was a kid,” Mr. Man recalls. “Every weekend, our family would go to Chinatown and line up at Hon’s or one of the other shops. The tables were always crowded.”
Although recipes differ, especially when made at home, a good version of wonton-noodle soup has certain common characteristics.
The broth is clear, like consommé, and generally made from a mix of chicken, pork and dried seafood stocks. “But it should be balanced,” food journalist and chef Nathan Fong says, “so no one flavour dominates.”
The wonton wrappers are thinner than most dumplings, almost translucent after cooking, and pulled tight around the filling. The best are shaped like goldfish, with a bulbous body and long, silky tail. “Won means cloud and ton mean to swallow,” Mr. Man explains. “You are meant to be swallowing a cloud. They should have a lovely buoyancy to them.”
In classic versions, the filling was a mixture of prawn and minced pork with shallots and ginger, although a finer plain prawn version is now the norm. The mixture should be rigorously tossed to develop the proteins. “It has to have a good snappy texture, almost crunchy,” Mr. Cheung says.
And then, there are the noodles. It’s not wonton-noodle soup without the noodles – thin, vermicelli noodles dense with duck-egg protein and cooked to a springy, al dente texture. In order to incorporate all the duck egg into the flour and alkaline solution without any water, the hand-rolled noodles were originally kneaded with a bamboo pole. The cook would tether the pole to a work bench, straddle one end and bounce up and down to press the dough, before putting it into a machine to flatten it even further.
The Michelin-starred Wing Wah Noodle Shop in Hong Kong was the last wonton shop to make noodles this way. It recently closed, after 68 years in business.
“Chinese food is dying,” bemoans Eva Chin, executive chef at Vancouver’s Royal Dinette. To commemorate Wing Wah, her favourite wonton noodle shop, she will be serving her own version of bamboo noodles, lo mein style with country-ham broth and fresh surf clams, for the entire month of September.
“Cooking is an art, but it is also a form of labour,” she says, explaining the waning of wonton-noodle soup. “The Asian masters won’t pass it on to their kids because they didn’t work their whole life to make their kids do hard labour. Nyonya food is dying.”
Wonton-noodle soup is certainly not flourishing in Vancouver. I went to the new Hon’s Wonton House in Olympic Village. It’s a rebranded franchise of the original Hon’s restaurant group, which opened in 1972, but has since branched out into retail and wholesale food products. The noodles were soft, the prawn wontons were loosely packed and the broth was intensely salty.
Then I went to Max Noodle House in Richmond, which was originally an offshoot of the famous Mak’s Noodle in Hong Kong. The clustered noodles were firm, with a nice springy chew. And the prawn-and-pork wontons, wrapped with silky fish tails, had good snap. But the seafood-heavy broth (typical of the way it is served at Mak’s) wasn’t finely strained and had a mouth-coating greasiness.
Along my wonton travels through Richmond, I happened upon Mama’s Dumpling & Coffee. It is a Shanghainese restaurant, located way off the beaten track in a light-industrial strip mall. I actually went for the Shanghai-style fried pork buns, which are as comforting to people from Northern China as wonton-noodle soup is to people from Hong Kong, and just as elusive.
It’s a tricky process to make these doughy versions of xiao long bao without popping a leak and losing the soup filling, seeing as they are fried upside down with the folds on the bottom. Owner Lisa Zhang, a first-generation immigrant who operated a seafood restaurant in Shanghai, only makes so many servings a day, most of which are sold out through preorders. They’re a big deal to those in the know.
While I was there, I also devoured the most ethereal wonton soup. It wasn’t Cantonese wonton soup. The pork broth, made from slow-simmered bones, was milky from marrow and beautifully rounded. The elegant wrappers were pure white, gently wrinkled around hot grass-fed pork filling and as soft as silk with long, slippery tails. Now this must surely be what it tastes like to swallow a cloud!
A few days later, I talked to the chef’s daughter, Anna Ma, by phone. She has just finished her MBA. Although she hasn’t learned how to make her mother’s wontons or pan-fried buns, she plans to open more locations and eventually franchise the business.
The Chinese population in Vancouver is changing. And while it’s no consolation to the previous waves from Hong Kong who can no longer find their beloved Cantonese wonton noodle soup, Mama’s might very well become the new Hon’s for the next generation. Go now, while it’s still good.
Mama’s Dumpling & Coffee: 103-11782 Hammersmith Way, Richmond, B.C.; 778-297-1618; mamasdumpling.com.