Anthony Bourdain’s sudden death triggered an outpouring of emotion from all over, but for me, it eventually led me into the kitchen to make wonton noodle soup and refresh my memory of experiences long ago. My first job after college was with the federal government. I was a bank examiner and quickly learned to hate debits and credits as well as wearing suits and stockings. A good friend from high school told me about the Rotary Foundation International Fellowship program and I realized that it would be my graceful exit from life as a traveling bank auditor. I applied and received a year-long, few strings-attached, expenses-paid fellowship in Hong Kong. I’d already studied Mandarin Chinese in four years and would continue my education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and pick up a little Cantonese along the way, too. I’d always wanted to study abroad but could never afford to while I was an undergraduate.
It was a dreamy year of being in Hong Kong. The food was outrageously good, especially inexpensive treats like wonton noodle soup, dumplings, egg tarts, and rice plates — dishes I relished on a student budget. Strangers tended to be curt and rude and the streets were a little dirty. I loved being there from 1991 to 1992.
When I returned fifteen years later to do research for the Asian Dumplings cookbook, Hong Kong was clean, people were kinder, and the food wasn’t as wonderful. Cruise ships lined up on Kowloon side to drop passengers right into an air-conditioned mall. There were department stores that I’d seen in many other parts of the world. The distinctive shops where I’d shopped for folk art and small dumpling places I’d known were gone. The Star Ferry ride between Hong Kong side and Kowloon Side wasn’t as charming.
Wandering Kowloon’s streets in the early evening, I discovered a shop selling kitchen wares and scored a bamboo dumpling filling spreader that I cherish and use to this day. And, I got to watch a man assemble wontons under the glow of a street light. I watched him for several minutes from afar before I got embarrassed and ordered a bowl of wonton noodle soup.
The crinkly Hong Kong-style wontons were made with very thin skins, served in a golden broth that had touches of umami from dried seafood, and paired with chewy thin noodles called bamboo noodles. There was the usual bit of gailan (Chinese broccoli) in the bowl, too. It was delicious and totally iconic. The experience saved me from disliking Hong Kong.
Over the weekend, in preparation for a radio interview about Anthony Bourdain’s influence on Asian cuisines, I watched the recent Parts Unknown episode on Hong Kong and read his field notes. Director Asia Argento captured the essence of Hong Kong in magical ways that reminded me of why the place captivated me so much in the early 1990s.
In one segment, Christopher Doyle, collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai on many Hong Kong movies, including In the Mood for Love, takes Bourdain to eat wonton noodle soup. Theirs is a simple, elemental bowl like the ones I’d savored many times.
Bourdain bemoans the changes in Hong Kong but as usual, the people and little things that he explores cast the beautiful light on Hong Kong’s core appeal. Traveling is about observing and appreciating the human experience. It’s not always what you expect.
After I did the interview and was still thinking of Bourdain’s legacy, I decided to make a Hong Kong-style wonton noodle soup. This is the recipe I came up with.
I used the Instant Pot for the broth, which was made with chicken and pork ribs (pork neckbones and leg bones weren’t available and I figured I could use the cooked ribs for another dish). Rock sugar, dried shrimp and shrimp shells helped to build savory-sweet depth.
Then I tweaked an Eileen Yin Fei Low recipe in Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking for the wonton filling, using more shrimp than pork and omitting garlic. Hmong Farmers had awesome gailan so I purchased a bunch. The bamboo noodles are only sold at Asian markets and my substitute was supermarket dried Chinese noodles, which were just fine.
Instead of using my regular shapes for making wontons, I did the “messy”—a nod to what I’d seen the Chinese cook do years ago in Hong Kong. It’s fast and uses largish wonton wrappers. You simply put the filling in the middle and gather up the wrapper and squeeze. The wrappers that professional chefs use are usually fresh, moist, and supple. My supermarket ones needed a water brushing and given their smaller size, my wontons looked more arty than messy. (See the recipe for step-by-step photos.)
When my husband tasted the resulting bowl of wonton noodle soup, he exclaimed, “This is just DELICIOUS!”
Anthony Bourdain contributed a lot to the world and now that he’s gone, we have to continue exploring and appreciating the details and connections that can be made through food and culture.
Wonton Noodle Soup
Yield 6 servings
To make the broth in a 8 to 10-quart stockpot, parboil the chicken and pork as usual. Then simmer all the broth ingredients along with 12 cups water for 2 hours, uncovered, checking around the 1 1/2 hour mark to see if the ribs are tender. Let the broth rest for about 15 minutes before straining and using. In the filling, you can use ground dark meat chicken instead of the ground pork. Or, go all shrimp for the filling!
- 1 pound chicken backs, necks, or other bony chicken parts
- 2 pounds pork ribs, neck, spine, and/or leg bones, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 medium yellow onion, quartered
- Chubby 2-inch piece fresh ginger, unpeeled and smashed with the broad side of a cleaver or chef’s knife
- 1/2 ounce rock sugar
- Brimming 1 tablespoon dried shrimp
- Shrimp shells (from filling below)
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
- 6 ounces ground pork, fattier kind is better and if you can get coarsely ground, it’s even better!
- 8 ounces medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut into pea-size pieces
- 2 green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped water chestnut, carrot, or jicama
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 3/4 teaspoon ginger juice (grate it then strain)
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch plus more for dusting
- 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon sugar (use the maximum for a stronger sweet-salty finish)
- Rounded 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 pinches white pepper
- 1 egg
- 40 to 48 wonton wrappers (one 12-ounce package, such as Nasoya brand)
- 12 ounces gailan, baby bok choy, carrot, green beans, chard or a combination, cut into bite-size pieces
- 12 ounces dried thin Chinese wheat noodles
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- White pepper
- Toasted sesame oil or chile oil
For the broth
Wielding a heavy cleaver designed for chopping bones, whack the bones to break them partway or all the way through, making the cuts at 1- to 2-inch intervals, depending on the size of the part. This exposes the marrow, which enriches the broth.
Put the chicken and pork ribs in a 6-quart stove top pressure cooker stockpot or electric multicooker like the Instant Pot or Fagor Duo. Add water to just cover. Bring to a boil over high heat to release the scummy impurities (in a multicooker, select a high heat function like Brown on the Duo or adjust the Saute function on the Instant Pot). Turn off the heat. Set a colander in the sink then drain the chicken and pork parts. Spray with water to knock off the impurities. Set aside while you wash the cooker.
Replace the chicken and pork in the cooker, then add the onion, sugar, dried shrimp, shrimp shells, salt and 8 cups water. Lock the lid in place, bring to high pressure, adjust the heat to maintain pressure, then cook for 15 minutes. Slide the cooker to a cold burner and let naturally depressurize for 20 minutes before releasing pressure. (Program a multicooker to cook at high pressure for 15 minutes. Turn off or unplug the cooker, then let naturally depressurize for 25 minutes before releasing residual pressure.)
Skim as much fat from the broth as you like, then strain the broth through a muslin-lined (or paper towel-lined) strainer positioned over a medium (3-quart) pot; you should have about 8 cups. As you work, retrieve the pork ribs and set aside in bowl half-filled with water to cool. When done, discard the other solids. Drain the ribs and set them refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days to use for another dish. Similarly, the broth can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.
For the wontons
To make the filling, in a bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, green onion, water chestnut, oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, ginger juice, sesame oil, cornstarch, sugar, salt, pepper, and egg. Stir well with a fork to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes or refrigerate overnight.
Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and generously dust with cornstarch. Set up a wonton making station with the wrappers, a bowl of water and brush.
Working in batches of 5 or 6 wonton wrappers, brush water on the edges of each wrapper, then fill with about 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling. Make your favorite shape, or the “messy” as shown below.
Place the wontons on the lined baking sheet, with none touching. When done, loosely cover with plastic wrap to prevent drying. Refrigerate overnight or freeze until hard and then transfer to an airtight container to freeze for up to 1 month (partially thaw for 15 minutes before cooking).
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Use a noodle strainer, in batches, blanch the vegetables for about 1 minute, then cool in a bowl of cold water. Boil the noodles in the same pot of water, drain, flush with cold water to cool then set aside to drain. Divide the noodles and vegetables among six noodle soup bowls.
Reuse the same big pot to cook the wontons. Fill it halfway with water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, in s medium pot, combine the broth and 1 tablespoon soy sauce then reheat over medium-high heat; lower the heat and cover if it comes to a boil.
Add the wontons to the large pot of boiling water, dropping each in and nudging it to prevent sticking. Once they float to the top, let cook for 1 minute until translucent and plump, then use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer to the hot broth.
Let the wonton finish cooking in the hot broth for 2 to 3 minutes, then divide among the bowls. Finish with a pinch of white pepper. Drizzle on sesame oil or chile oil. Serve immediately.