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Wonton Soup and Wonton Foods, Inc.
Soups and Congees
Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 11, 12, and 32
Every time I order wonton mien at a restaurant, I notice differences between eating at home versus in a restaurant especially with reference to noodles. As with most people, certain foods remind me of my childhood. One of my fondest 'growing up memories' was the wonderful meals my mother made, especially on the weekends. Despite the hustle and bustle of raising four daughters and working full time, without fail she always made a delightful lunch of homemade wonton or noodles. We ate from big bowls using porcelain spoons shaped like a scoop. The hot soup obliged us to blow gently across the top of each spoonful cautiously to avoid burning our tastebuds and risk sacrificing any flavor on a numbed or blistered tongue.
My sisters and I slurped loudly and in stereo, perfectly acceptable Chinese table manners, while my parents sprinkled white pepper that was fine as talc on their soup. They even added a spoonful of chili bean paste, but that would ruin it for me. I liked my wonton delights just as they were, plain and simple. I easily ate a dozen or more at the age of five. Eating them was like the literal translation: 'Swallowing Clouds,' or so I imagined.
These were not the Chinese takeout type that mimic thick tortellini in watery, yellow-colored liquid. They seemed suspended, almost weightless in the soup, like spirits. And when I squinted at the right angle, the glistening slick of fat wafting on top became an iridescent rainbow. The rounded end of each wonton bubbled around its precious filling while the remaining skin gathered at the other end of the dumpling and seemed to float in rich broth, like a ruffled skirt. The bubbles were a result of the steam from cooking, but also sealed in every drop of juice that sweat from the filling. With every bite, an explosion of flavor startled my mouth into full awareness of the simplicity that made this a wonderful meal even though it was without noodles.
These were my mother’s wontons. She did not call them 'won ton' as they are often mispronounced. Instead she seemed to breathe the Chinese sounds deeply from her chest: hun tun. The familiar ash-white square wrappers she used were thin, almost sheer, and with a light dusting of starch to keep them separate. The tall stack came wrapped in waxed paper and secured with a strip of brown paper. They were stamped in red ink: 'West Lake Noodle Company.'
A large bowl of ground, fatty pork generously spotted with chunks of chopped shrimp centered the table. Small diced cubes of water chestnuts scattered in the filling added a crunch to each bite. Soy sauce, salt, a pinch of sugar, and white pepper were mixed in by hand to balance out the flavors.
When I was old enough, I helped make these very wontons. A small nugget of seasoned meat filling was placed in the center of the wrapper with chopsticks. I would dip them lightly into a small bowl of water and brush their tips around the filling on the borders of the wonton skin. I had trouble pinching the ends with my small hands, often sealing the center too tightly or creating a pinching point so thick, it complicated the cooking time. My mother was expert, her quick nimble fingers created a magnificent seal and resulted in a perfect pouch-shaped wonton. It seemed we used every flat plate and any available household tray to hold enough wrapped wontons to feed our large family. When they were full and lined up in rows, they looked like a miniature army of presents.
While we wrapped, a kettle of rich gingery chicken soup simmered leaving a stomach-quenching scent in the air good enough to whet a vegetarian appetite. The wontons were simmered gently in a separate pot of water, to avoid clouding the broth. When they were cooked, the wontons were removed with a strainer and placed into deep bowls. A generous ladle of broth was added along with some blanched clusters of green vegetables like bok choy or choy sum. Minced rings of scallions were floated on top. A colorful rainbow of every shade from dark green to white finished the picture.
On other days we had noodles, lest we tire of hun tun. Noodles were usually the second runner-up in my list of favorites. The endless variety made the menu something always to be anticipated. Hot summer days practically forced us to eat cold dishes and we begged for chilled lo mein with mother’s peanut-butter-based sauce. To me, it is a combination of two popular noodle dishes: cold sesame noodles and dan dan mien (also similar), which are usually spicy; but my mother toned them down to a G-rated, kiddy-version for us.
Since sesame paste was harder to find in the 70’s, my mom cleverly substituted a generous spoonful of our lunchbox Skippy and mixed it with sesame oil, soy sauce, and a pinch of sugar to make a thick paste. With the faucet running, she dipped her hands into the stream and dribbled just enough water from her fingers to make a thin the paste, like heavy cream. She tossed cooked drained egg noodles into a large bowl and drizzled the peanut sauce on top, mixing the noodles and sauce. It was akin to washing my hair until each strand was well coated. My sister Emily loved this dish the most and always had extra drippy sauce on her portion.
Today, when I make wontons just like my mother, I dutifully look for the same ingredients she used. I search for the familiar package of wonton skins with the white, waxed paper and strip of brown wrapper. What I recently noticed is the old manufacturer: West Lake Noodle Company in Manhattan’s Chinatown is no more. The change is a sign of the times that brought me across the bridge into Brooklyn to investigate the evolution.
I went and found myself in a lesser-known section of Brooklyn called East Williamsburg (not quite the trendy Williamsburg area), and at the Wonton Food Inc. building. I had called and been invited, and management graciously met with me.
Their warehouse is also a factory that produces miles of noodles. It is situated in a neighborhood mecca of food manufacturing companies. Unassuming and intimidating in the industrial warehouse sense, Wonton Food Inc. boasts neighbors like Boar’s Head Brand with it’s fleet of unmistakable old-fashioned delivery trucks, and even a great fish smoker who this magazine’s editor raves about.
Massive machines, dough mixers, and rollers whistle and hum noisily, reminding me of the book and movie about the Willie Wonka chocolate factory. Only here, chow mein noodles are mixed, rolled, cut, fried, and even portioned into individual-sized packets. They are similar to the type served with so-called duck sauce found in take-out and suburban Chinese restaurants. In the switch of a lever, a large box can be free-filled. I know, because I have seen it myself.
All types of noodles are made here. White thick and white or yellow thin noodles made of wheat are packaged into small 8oz bags with only their names to differentiate them. Larger wholesale quantities are also available. Thicker lo mein noodles, also yellow, are rounder and come uncooked or pre-cooked (needing a minute-long dip in boiling water). I realize that this is the same noodle used in most restaurants as well as the type my mother used for those wonderful peanut noodles and I begin to salivate at the thought of it.
Most scraps of dough are combined to make thin fried wonton noodles, justifying their texture—more firm than the others. Thicker than the thread-like noodles require a slightly longer cooking time, considering their size. Each bag of raw ones can carry four nests, each portioned for a single serving. The fried ones are single serving packaged or put in plastic bag-lined boxes for wholesale distribution.
Another room holds gigantic steel drums that steam and roll slowly, like a road-paver. They are a custom design to make those wonderful spring roll wrappers. What impressive precision. Light, translucent crepes bubbled and pebbled are the result. Short stacks of them are piled but the row of people manually bagging each portion reveals that not everything in life is automated. Everything from egg roll skins to almost any type of fresh flour-noodles imaginable is made here.
The most amazing thing for me is the where the dumpling wrappers are made. This is where the dough is made, rolled, and cut into circles or squares and packaged accordingly. However, it is the thin, wonton squares that I am interested in. I see there are different sizes. That explains why I once tried to make dumplings but found the filling peeking through—the wrapper was too small. The package, nearly the same, is now stamped: 'Wonton Food Inc.'
This is precisely the very wonton wrapper that I grew up eating. It is comforting to know it is still available. And, if you’ve ever ordered takeout Chinese, the chances are you have had something from this very company which originated as the West Lake Noodle Company in Manhattan. Wonton Foods, Inc. is the largest manufacturer of fortune cookies as well as the largest noodle and wrapper manufacturer in the United States; elsewhere, too, I bet. Their unmistakable individually wrapped Golden Bowl fortune cookies, also a part of the company entity, are cleverly folded, tasty messengers of good will and clairvoyance. While custom messages can be printed, do not expect Confucius to write them for you.
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