I didn’t know much about the influence of Chinese culture worldwide until I learned about the Brazilian pastel from a good friend of mine. He told me that native Brazilians referred to this delicious food as the “Chinese pastry.” Confused, I asked him about the origin.
When Japanese immigrants settled in Brazil, they brought their version of a Chinese fried wonton. The wonton was immersed in the South American culture, and grew into the triangular, meat-filled staple Brazilian food.
I became curious about how the wonton has traveled around the world and transformed within different cultures. Won’t(on) you travel the world with me through this classic Chinese food?
History: The difference between dumplings and wontons
When you think of a wonton, do you associate it with bread? Me neither. But according to the ancient Chinese poet, Yang Xiong, this type of bread is stuffed with a delicious filling and steamed or boiled.
This is the same makeup as your typical dumpling. Dumplings have mainly stayed the same over hundreds of years. But wontons developed a signature style in North China as a result of, believe it or not, bullying.
Spicy Chicken Wontons
According to folklore, the Huns, who we are all familiar with from “Mulan,” bullied the Northern Chinese people around the Winter solstice. These brutes were led by warriors, “Hun” and “Tun.”
The Northern Chinese people put all their pettiness into their food and named the sealed bun “hun tun.” Every Dong Zhi (or winter solstice), they would eat away at their enemies as a coping mechanism.
Wontons for Winter Solstice
This hilarious story attempts to explain why the Northern Chinese developed a unique style of dumpling that we now know as wontons. Looking at a wonton, you can see the physical differences.
Wontons are made with a yellow dough that becomes transparent with cooking. Dumplings tend to be made of a thicker, white dough. Dumplings’ edges are pleated while wontons are shaped to represent the Chinese gold ingot.
American wontons being cooked in Chinatown
The wonton’s history doesn’t stop there. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) only upper class Chinese families enjoyed the luxuries of wontons and wonton soup.
Soon, Chinese nationals began to immigrate to the U.S. and around the world. And they brought a taste of home with them. Versions of wontons began popping up all over the place.
American Wonton Soup
In America, wonton soup was an instant success. People in their respective Chinatowns around the country began opening up restaurants centered around this dish.
American culture focuses greatly on fusions and being a “cultural melting pot.” Chinese chefs began creating fusion items that felt more “American,” such as crab rangoons and wonton tartlets.
Crab rangoons are deep fried wontons filled with cream cheese and crab. Chinese American cuisine usually serves fried wontons as an appetizer with a duck, plum, sweet and sour, or hot mustard sauce.
Chifa is a culinary tradition based on Cantonese elements mixed with Peruvian ingredients.
The tradition was started by Southern Chinese immigrants who moved to Peru from Guangdong. When they settled in the coastal areas of Peru, chifa instantly became one of the most popular types of beach food.
Wanton frito, or fried wonton skins, have become a sandy staple.
In Russia, wontons mixed with minced meat are called пельмени (pelmeni).
They are an important part of an archaic ritual. Instead of sacrificing an animal for their rituals, these wontons symbolize the sacrifice.
They were extremely popular with Russian explorers in the 14th century.
Pelmeni look extremely similar to perogies. The main difference is that pelmeni are filled with cold, almost frozen, raw meat and cooked with the dumpling skin.
In the Philippines
In the Philippines, fried wontons are known as pinseques fritos, or chip-like fried wrappers. They originated from trade between China and the Phillipines dating back to the ninth century.
Filipino culture loses its mind over a salty fried snack. Naturally, wontons took the shape of another crunchy chip option.
The mix of Chinese cuisine with Filipino culture also resulted in dishes like pancit and lumpia.
In Thailand, wontons are called kiao from the Hokkien pronunciation of dumpling. Wonton soup is called kiao nam, and it is made with chicken stock and pork fillings.
Learn how to make it here!