I ended the week at Chowking, where I had a bowl of chao fan, a couple of fried dumplings, and some pork tofu. Day Five of eating anything and everything related to street dimsum, I think a dinner of Chinese fastfood is a good way to cap it all off; dimsum a’la carte, street siomai, and just about everything in between.
Ah, yum cha; in Chinese cooking, there’s something about wrapping stuff and cooking them. While chicken feet and steamed mushrooms may be served without wrapping, most of us think of dimsum as a savory item covered with a starchy wrap, and cooked in many different ways. I guess that, in many ways, cooking is made much easier by wrapping things and cooking them.
For many workers in the Ortigas and Makati Central Business Districts, the day – or the afternoon or evening – starts with a bowl of stir-fried noodles topped with fried dumplings, or steamed siomai. Almost every office worker in Metro Manila’s two major business districts have had a bowl of Hongkong-style noodles, or a tray of steamed supermarket siomai at P25 a pop. It’s cheap, and it’s easy to eat as well. Siomai rice has been quite the rage and rave in many stalls lately, where the “Chinese-style” approach to cooking and eating is brought to the palates of office workers, trainees, and job-seekers.
Yet for all that has been said for ground meats wrapped in flour paper, there are certain differences in taste and preference. I can’t remember exactly where I had it, but I’ve had wonton soup with fishballs and kikiam wrapped in wonton wrappings, although not every wonton aficionado has developed a taste for surimi. The venerable molo is also subject to debate; not only will people argue about what fillings should be included, or how exactly to wrap the dumpling to prevent the wrapper from disintegrating. (The key is to seal the wrapper with beaten egg, not water.)
The art of wrapping a wonton is a thing in itself. Some like triangles, some like to make those easy bundles, and some like to make intricate styles. Yet the shape and texture of the wonton has more to do with the wrapping than the style; thinner wonton wrappers are easier to wrap, but they disintegrate faster. Thicker wonton wrappers are difficult to handle, but once you get the hang of it, you won’t be using anything else in your cooking.
I believe in “less is more” when it comes to wrapped dimsum; the less ingredients you add to the mixture, the better it tastes. The complexities of flavor should be found in the soup or in the sauce, not in the filling of the dumpling. Dumplings are meant to fill the stomach, while the sauce is supposed to stimulate the palate. The a’la carte dimsum stands got this part right, offering a wide variety of sauces that you can pretty much “customize and configure” to your own liking. My favorite has always been a spoonful of peanut sauce, a bit of soy sauce to make it runny, a smattering of chili flakes and chili garlic, and the juice of one calamansi. You don’t see that in restaurants, where the sauce already comes prepared and served.
Yet the search for the perfect wonton can only be made possible by a visit home, where Mom makes wontons the way I want them: full, and the wrappers don’t disintegrate into the soup. The secret is to dip the wrappers in a bit of egg wash, seal the wontons with egg, and serve the very thick wonton soup hot. For now, though, I think I’ll stick with fastfood and streets wontons; maybe come Christmas, I’ll have a lot of these yummy things to gorge myself on.