Chinese Wonton Noodling
The Lunar New Year
Story & Photos by Jo Yee
As I sit here and write this I hear the clang of stainless steel bowls, pots and pans, vibrating through my mother’s hundred year old house in New England. I’m now thousands of miles away in London, but sometimes I swear her pitter-patter in the kitchen is still loud enough to stir me awake in the early dawn, as if my bedroom is still just three yards away. She is anything but predictable when it comes to most things but her penchant for noise pollution in the kitchen can be timed to cockcrow.
Wonton noodle soup is not the most classic of lunar new year dishes, I cannot recall a time when it was made specifically for a new year in my mother’s household, but it is laden with symbolism of good fortune. In the length of noodles there is longevity; good tidings of abundance is wrapped up in a wonton, like presents. I don’t know who makes this stuff up, but whoever it is has great taste in food, so I do not protest.
Wonton noodle soup is to my family what a full English Breakfast is to England. My maternal grandfather was the wonton noodle man, in the midst of Saigon streets filled with steaming pho bo pots. His product was handmade and homemade. He did just well enough to raise a hearty family of fourteen. While he never made it to the States, my aunts, and his youngest two daughters, brought with them a tradition of cooking up a big pot of substance, usually on weekends when our extended family would gather.
This is where I tell you there is no family wonton recipe to share. Written recipes do not exist in the generations before mine. Meals are conjured by estimation, approximation and intuition. It is how my mother cooks and how her mother cooks. It is how my 7th aunt, 8th aunt, 10 and 11th aunts cook. Likely, it is because of the lack of written instructions, I did not really start cooking until well into my late twenties.
While my sister has started the process of trying to wrestle a cooking demonstration out of my aunts, I went for an easier route. My version of wonton noodle soup is pescetarian friendly using homemade fish stock as a base built out of prawn shells and heads, its essence with traces of ginger, onions and celery are then simmered down.
I used a recipe from Gok Cooks Chinese Cookbook, as a starting point and made some adjustments to it along the way, not seeking out the flavors of home, but the residual comfort that it might bring. I gave myself a hearty pat on the back after the Brit and I had our second serving. It certainly tastes immeasurably better than my best local takeout and for now that is good enough.
Since I missed out on decorating our flat for Christmas in December I am making up for it by channeling in some lunar new year spirit, in the form of pussy willows, hanging red lanterns, fine green tea and clementines. I love the energy of it so much in my home studio that it might be here to stay. For those who celebrate, xīn nián kuài lè!
Jo Yee is the author of Candids by Jo, a visually based lifestyle blog that centers on food, travel and leading a creative life.
Follow Jo @CandidsbyJo
Photos © Jo Yee