It is a bit of a tree in the forest scenario, to start. Well, maybe not quite so abstract as all that, but in most circles, a wonton is actually considered a dumpling, categorically. So is that it? Mystery solved? Class dismissed? Not quite…
Having reached full cult status in the U.S., inspiring festivals in New York, culinary tours in San Francisco, and an entire week of dumpling-related debauchery in Portland, the very least we can do is take a closer look at these icons of the appetizer menu. These darlings of dim sum.
Broadly speaking, the dumpling encompasses any small starchy dough wrapped around a filling (usually) of some protein or another, and then fried, boiled, steamed, baked, or really any other darn way you’d like to get them cooked. By that definition, dumplings include any number of tiny pocket-like foods like Italian ravioli, Spanish empanada, Polish pierogi, Puerto Rican pasteles, Indian guija, and of course, the Chinese wonton.
Despite its sweeping definition, spanning many food cultures, the dumpling has perhaps become most associated with Chinese, or more specifically, Cantonese cuisine—one of China’s most-celebrated and furthest-traveling. The image (likely) conjured when thinking of a classic “Chinese dumpling”—that crescent, slightly thick or doughy creation found in Chinese-American restaurants and pictured below—is actually a jiaozi.
With the popularity of the cuisine and ubiquity of the particular jiaozi dumpling within it (despite a range of other Chinese dumplings), its true name never quite caught on and jiaozi became known simply as “dumpling” or “pot sticker”, both English terms.
That we’ve successfully conceded a wonton to be, in fact, a dumpling, and a dumpling is, say it with me, a jiaozi, we can effectively define what distinguishes one from another and how they are most often made and eaten today.
A traditional Chinese wonton is crafted from a much thinner dough than jiaozi, comprised of flour, egg, water, and salt. Once the Wonton dough is made and rolled thin, it is cut into squares or circles and filled with minced meats, vegetables, herbs, and cooked using any number of methods including steamed, lightly pan-fried, or slow-boiled into soup with cabbage and roast pork. Sound familiar? Wontons can also be simply pinched or sliced, (unfilled) deep-fried, salted, and served as a pre-meal snack with hot mustard or a sweet soy sauce.
Jiaozi are similarly stuffed and cooked but less often found in soups due to their relative firmness. Because of this thick skin, jiaozi hold up well to more aggressive methods of cooking like high-boiling or pan-frying in oil for that beautiful, crunchy caramelization. When not souped, both are traditionally served with a type of soy or hoisin dipping sauce, accompanied by diced chives, chili paste, and other flavors.
Though appearances vary and depend largely on a chef’s preference, doughier jiaozi are most often hand-pinched to form that classic crescent, while thinner wontons are pinched into triangles at the top, creating a small sack or wrapped delicately around the side, to look not unlike a nun wearing a habit. Get a quick wonton-wrapping lesson here.
The first known dumplings of any kind are thought to have appeared in Apicius, a Roman cookery text, but Chinese dumplings date back as far as the Han Dynasty (1800 years ago) and are as pervasive as anything in the many Chinese cuisines that have emerged since. They’ve come to symbolize wealth and prosperity via their similarity in shape to gold and silver ingots, and because of this have become staples at any Chinese New Year celebration.
With that, we give you dumpling recipes of both the jiaozi and wonton variety. May they too bring you wealth, health, and happiness in 4716!
Start with a basic dumpling dough and the possibilities are limitless. Be careful, as with any dough, the devil is in the details. Get our Basic Dumpling Dough recipe.
Buttery shrimp and salty pork pair well and find themselves partnered often, including in these fried wontons. For best results, look for “Hong Kong”-style wonton wrappers at your Chinese grocery. Get our Fried Wontons recipe.
Traditional wonton soup can be found in many Chinese restaurants. This updated version incorporates spicy miso, a Japanese flavoring agent made from fermented soybeans. Get our Spicy Miso Soup with Bok Choy Wontons recipe.
These traditional pork jiaozi dumplings have a thick skin and will crisp up in the pan without falling apart. Get the recipe.
Hearty steamed vegetables dumplings are wonton-like in their thinness and a perfect appetizer for your next vegan dinner party. Get our Steamed Vegetable Dumplings recipe.
Header image courtesy of Tiny Urban Kitchen and Chowhound.