Sunday, October 01, 2006

Favorite food. won ton soup.

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin writes about how she once had lunch cooked by a girl whose mother never cooked but was able to afford expensive Chinese help, and therefore concluded that everyone "should either have the good fortune either to be Chinese or to be rich. Either way, you can end up learning how to make homemade wontons and duck stuffed with cherries and fresh lichee nuts." I did have the good fortune to be Chinese but I never did learn how to make duck stuffed with cherries and fresh lichee nuts. (In my opinion it is a crime to do anything with a fresh lichee nut except eat it, the cool, sweet, translucent flesh bursting with juice in the mouth). And one of my earliest memories in the kitchen is of making wontons at the kitchen table with my mother.

There would be a bowl of filling in front of me, a pile of flour-dusted wonton skins next to it, a bowl of water at its side. With a pair of chopsticks I would dab a little knob of filling right smack into the middle of the square wrapper, fold it in half to make a triangle, and twist the far corners together and seal them with a little water, applied with a fingertip and squished tight between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. They looked like little heads wrapped in kerchiefs. We would fill trays and trays with these little dumplings, and freeze them. It only took a moment to boil some water, heat some broth, cook the wontons for a few minutes, float them in the hot broth, and there you were.

It is comfort food. There is soup, usually chicken, and there are the little dumplings, the wontons. As they cooked the skins would crumple and shrink tight around the meat filling. The filling was usually ground pork, mixed with spinach and tofu and seasoned with soy sauce. The skins became soft in the boiling water, like sheets of noodles. If you put too much filling in the wonton the wrapper falls off during cooking; too little and the balance of meat-to-noodle is all wrong. But it is worth the trouble of making them yourself, as it is with most foods. You could by premade ones, I suppose, and they are fine. But the pleasure of food lies partly in its creation, in the rhythm of chopping and stirring and the monotony of wrapping dozens of little dumplings with a few deft twists of your hands.

I have promised C. wonton soup, so here I am. The filling has a base of ground pork; I have sliced some soft tofu into cubes, drained them, and mashed them in with a fork until you cannot tell where the pork leaves off and the tofu begins. I swirl in the soy sauce, grate in some ginger. I've forgotten the spinach. No matter. There is a pot of broth simmering on the stove for the next night, or the night after. And then I realize, I can watch a movie and shape my dumplings at the same time, my ingredients and trays and bowls spread across the living room floor. The minutes speed by as I go through the motions - dab, fold, twist, dab, press. There are ninety little wontons lined up neatly by the time I am halfway through my movie. Splendid.

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