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Finding family in the folds: Learning the art of wonton connects Coloradans across cultures

The traditional dumpling is more than a palate pleaser for many Asian Americans. It's redolent with childhood memories.

Mama Shiou, center, moves from table to table to show her guests step by step how to make both potstickers and wontons. The Asian Chamber of Commerce hosted a wonton and potsticker class under the guidance of Mama Shiou, owner of the Twin Dragon Restaurant on May 18, 2019 in Englewood, Colorado (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Clarence Low called up his mother last year and asked if she’d fly to Denver to teach his two sons how to make bao, the steamed pastry often filled with Chinese BBQ pork.

“Mom, why don’t you come out and reteach me how to bao wonton?” Low, president of Colorado’s Asian Chamber of Commerce, recalled asking his mother. “And mom, you know, being a Chinese mom, was like, ‘Why fly me out? It’s so far away,’ — even though it’s just San Francisco. ‘It’s so far away and it’d be faster if you went to a local Chinese restaurant. And cheaper, too.’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, mom, that’s not the point. It’s that memory. It’s showing your grandkids how to bao wonton.’

And then he strategically added, “It’s your grandson’s birthday.”

That did it. Low’s mother hopped on a plane last August and took the family shopping at H-Mart and Pacific Ocean Marketplace for fresh bamboo shoots, shitake mushrooms and other supplies. Then they bao’d wonton, making hundreds of the dough-wrapped packages full of minced meat and veggies, perfect for soup and snacking.

“We did it around the dinner table at the house. And grandma was the star. She had such a great time being able to show the grandkids how to wrap the wontons,” said Low, who relayed the story to members of the Chamber, which ended up hosting a dumpling-making event at the Twin Dragon restaurant in Englewood on Saturday.

Travis Martinez-Tom, right, and son Cruz, 10, work together to assemble their potstickers during a wonton and potsticker class hosted by the Asian Chamber of Commerce at the Twin Dragon Restaurant on May 18, 2019 in Englewood, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

These days, one can walk into nearly any grocery store and buy frozen Chinese dumplings. Costco sells them in bulk. But for those who grew up forced into familial dumpling duty or have since fallen in love with the process, the actual making of dumplings brings back memories or creates them. Folding, wrapping or pleating the pan-fried, steamed or boiled treats has even been woven into American movies, like last summer’s hit “Crazy Rich Asians” and the shocking Academy Award-winning animated short, “Bao,” from Disney’s Pixar.

“When I watched that (Bao) clip, it actually made me cry,” said Kevina Lee, co-founder of the Asian Pacific American employees resource group in this Mountain West region of Comcast, which sponsored the Chamber’s event.

In the film, a Chinese mother makes bao for her husband. One of the buns turns into a baby boy. She adores bao boy, feeds him meat filling when his head caves in. She coddles him and won’t let him play soccer — or with friends. He rebels and eventually starts dating a blonde girl. And then … you should stream the short film directed by Domee Shi, the first female director of a Pixar short.

“I was like, that’s basically my brother. That could be me, too,” said Lee, whose parents are from Hong Kong. “And then, that’s my mom, for sure. It was like growing up, you know, American. Just not really knowing too much or caring too much about our heritage. We just wanted to essentially assimilate and be part of American culture and be accepted. And so, yeah, it was a very emotional moment for us.”

Food brings families together even if not everyone gets along, like in “Crazy Rich Asians.” In the movie, members of the super-wealthy Young family get messy around the dining table as they pleat dumplings by hand while a maid in a pressed uniform pours tea. The family matriarch says to her long-time daughter-in-law in Chinese, “You made those dumplings? They don’t look very good.”

“My mom and I had a lot of cultural differences because I was born here. But the one thing we could always bond on was food,” said Laura Jordan, an Aurora resident whose mother immigrated from China. “Of course, I think that’s a commonality for a lot of different cultures when they get together. Yes, we may not like each other, but when it comes to food, we’re all good.”

She remembers making dumplings in her spare time, “making future food,” she calls it.

“We would just sit for hours in front of the TV and make wontons,” Jordan said. “She would roll her own skins because she always threw up her nose at those (store wrappers). ‘Uchhh. This isn’t how we do it. Why do we have to do that when I can just make this at home?’ She was fast, like Mama Shiou. It just brought me back watching her do that. I haven’t seen anybody do that for 20 years.”

Meet Mama Shiou

Mama Shiou is Shiou Yun Wang Jefferson, long-time owner of the Twin Dragon. She makes her own dough, using her hands and a rolling pin to quickly shape the squishy chunks into perfect palm-sized circles. She makes one every 10 seconds, while simultaneously offering instructions.

“If you have an emergency and don’t have the skins at home, but you have flour, you can make dough within three minutes, 10 minutes with just cold water,” she said. “If you want dumplings, you have to have half hot water and half cold water mixed together. Dumplings. Jiaozi. Easy. Five minutes. Done.”

“Easy for her to say,” said a participant.

Kai Martinez-Tom, 7, and his family watches as Mama Shiou, left, finishes one of the potstickers. The event at the Twin Dragon Restaurant was inspired by the family tradition in some Asian American households to fold wontons for a big party. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The restaurant is set up for the special cooking session. Tables have dishes of raw pork and chicken for filling. Packages of round and square wrappers are fresh from Kwan Sang Noodle Company in Denver. There are also small bowls of water to “glue” the wrappers together.

Dumplings come in a variety of shapes and stuffings. But during this lesson, Mama Shiou is teaching wonton (one-tun), the folded kind stuffed with minced pork and typically served in soup; Jiaozi (jee-ow-zuh), the thinner skin and often steamed dumpling shaped like a half moon with pleats; and Wor Tip (woh-te-yuh), thicker-skinned, pan-fried snacks with a splash of water for steaming and also known as potstickers. But there’s no time today for Char Siu Bao, which requires yeast, steam and too much time (Editor’s note: A favorite place to get my bao fix is Celestial Bakery in Denver).

Even with Mama Shiou’s watchful eye, learning to pleat jiaozi will probably take more than a two-hour session. Karen Murakami grew up in Hawaii surrounded by a wonton-making family. She’s used to the one-fold wonton, shaping it into either a triangle or rectangle. She never quite got the hang of the more complicated gyoza, a Japanese dumpling.

“It’s very graceful when I see (my mom) do it. I can’t even close a gyoza,” Murakami said. “It’s so hard and she just pinches it and like, done! I’m still pinching mine.”

How to fold wonton

STEP ONE: Place meat in middle of square wrapper and fold into a triangle. // STEP TWO: Dab water on edges to “paste” skin together. // STEP THREE: Take the two corners facing outward and fold them underneath till they connect. // Voilà! You totally got that, right? (Photos by Kathryn Scott, special to The Colorado Sun)

But her completed stash look better than some others, including one guy whose overstuffed wrapper has filling squishing out the edges. That can burst during cooking. However, knowing the right amount of filling also depends on the type of dumpling, says Mama Shiou.

“A little bit more meat. More meat,” she instructs a jiaozi-making newbie. “Little bit more. Double. Wonton is less. This one is more.”

When the amateurs are ready, cooking stations are set up to cook wonton and make soup. They can also just boil the dumplings and eat them piping hot with soy sauce mixed with a little ginger, green onion and a little sesame oil.

“And then with the (dumpling) water, you can make egg drop soup,” said Mama Shiou, who can whip out 600 dumplings in one sitting, which she did for one Chinese New Year party this year. “Put some egg, seaweed, onions. For soup.”

Dumpling history

According to“The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson, records of dumplings date back to the Sung Dynasty, circa 960 to 1279 A.D. Chinese dumplings were sold as street food.

A more storyful tale told on the History channel site starts with a man named Zhang Zhongjian who returned to his village one winter and noticed that people suffered from frostbite around the ears. So he mixed up some mutton with chili and healing herbs, wrapped it in dough and boiled the package so his frostbitten friends could keep their ears warm. They apparently ate it instead, or maybe as well, according to the version passed on by Chinese cooks.

Artfully pleated jiaozi and bao Chinese dumplings from chef Penelope Wong, owner of the Yuan Wonton food truck in Denver. (Handout)

Meat wrapped in dough shows up in nearly every culture. Eastern Europe has perogies. Tamales in Mexico. The Italians have ravioli. Japan has gyoza. Samosas in India, empanadas in South America, mandu in Korea. The variety of shapes, fillings and cooking styles is limitless.

“So in Hawaii, our wontons are usually deep fried,” Murakami said. “Hawaii is really known for family style and potlucks so at every family event, or a friend’s BBQ or when my brother was playing baseball, even his events my parents or someone would always make wontons. Wontons are a staple. You can go to a takeout restaurant and order in batches. It’s so good.”

Cali Bonham, left, Kevina Lee, right, and Karen Murakami gather around a table with other guests and learn to how to assemble the potstickers and wontons. The Asian Chamber of Commerce hosts a wonton and potsticker class under the guidance of Mama Shiou, owner of the Twin Dragon Restaurant on May 18, 2019 in Englewood, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Fung Fung Lim, who is half Malaysian and half Filipino and spent much of her childhood in Alaska, said her family’s go-to food item is lumpia, a skinny and oh-so-crispy egg roll from the Philippines.

“We would invite a lot of people over, family, friends and family friends so we’d have to make a lot of egg rolls,” said Lim, an acupuncturist in Denver who graciously sends Asian-food items as care packages to her family in Alaska. “We’d start two days before.”

Pretty soon in the Denver area, foodies and, well, hungry people, can hunt down the Yuan Wonton food truck. It’s currently getting fixed up, but chef Penelope Wong is hoping for a mid-June launch. Her specialty will be chili-garlic dumplings plus a rotating daily special. She learned the art of the pleat while helping her parents in their Denver restaurant. Her grandmother taught her.

“It was at the restaurant at the back of the kitchen in the tiny prep area. She was elderly and sitting at a lower table. I can remember seeing just vats of filling and flour everywhere,” said Wong, who left her executive chef position at the Glenmoor Country Club in Cherry Hills last year to spend more time with her family. “It was beautiful.”

Chicken and lemongrass dumplings from Yuan Wonton, a Denver food truck from chef Penelope Wong. (Handout)

Kneading the dough, rolling it out and shaping it into wrappers is therapeutic, “a chef’s escape,” Wong says. She hasn’t paid much attention to whether her dumplings have the perfect number of pleats. But that is a thing. It’s 18, a number popularized by Taiwan-based soup dumping chain Din Tai Fung. She thinks it has something to do with the number 8, which is considered lucky in China. Pleats remind her of her grandmother.

“I remember the way she taught me was so intricate,” Wong said. “One of the first times I did it for the country club, I was teaching my sous chef. … I was teaching her the pleat exactly the way my grandmother taught me and she was, ‘How the hell are you doing it?’ And I’m like ‘It’s not that hard.’

“But in my mind, I’m hearing my grandmother’s voice, ‘Oh silly girl.’”

How to make dumplings (the Chinese way)

As for the ingredients, everyone is happy to share.

Some Napa cabbage. Or choy sum. A bit of soy sauce. Definitely garlic. Minced pork. Maybe bamboo shoots. Or shiitake mushrooms. Water chestnuts for some crunch.

Bacon.

“I asked my husband, who’s Caucasian, ‘ What do you want?’ He’s like, ‘Bacon,’” said Jordan, who keeps handmade dumplings in the freezer. “I put bacon my last round and it was fantastic pan fried because a little oil would come out and kind of like crisp up the bottoms in addition to the oil that I’d add to the pan.”

The guests gather together to add their wontons along with vegetables into chicken stock to make a soup. The Asian Chamber of Commerce hosts a wonton and potsticker class under the guidance of Mama Shiou, owner of the Twin Dragon Restaurant on May 18, 2019 in Englewood, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Techniques vary on how to make a tasty dumpling, but the steps go something like this: Add some of this, then some of that plus a little of this and that. Just eyeball it. Mix. Spoon into wrapper. Fold, pleat, steam, boil, pan fry or deep fry. Eat. Eat again. And again!

“Even the way they do it, my mom never measures it. Even my dad never measures,” said Murakami, from Hawaii. “So I’m like, how do you know what it’s going to taste like? I just see them put soy sauce or like oyster sauce. …How do you know if it’s enough, or do you need more? She’s always, ‘Oh, I got it.’ And it’s always good.”

Jeanette See, who is half Chinese and half Filipino, and her husband, James Garcia, left the event with boxes of homemade dumplings. Growing up, she remembers having dumpling-folding duty to prepare enough food for big events. She kind of misses that.

“But you know, when I started living alone, I started remembering,” she said. “I just have to remember, What did my mom do? When we got married last year, he never even knew I could cook. … You just start remembering stuff.”

Some 800 to 1,000 dumplings were folded and pleated, eaten or carried home on Saturday. The Asian Chamber already wants to do another event.

“Being able to learn this today, thank you to Mama Shiou for having us and teaching us,” said Lee, whose Hong Kong parents raised her in Florida but never taught her how to make dumplings, wonton or cook. “I know my mom will be really proud of me.”

Sur Render, right, and daughter Marley, 9, gather with other guests to add their wontons along with vegetables into chicken stock to make a soup at the Twin Dragon Restaurant on May 18, 2019 in Englewood, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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