Not Panda Express: Cheese Wontons
I get a lot of questions about cheese these days. What do you mean that the Chinese cooked with butter? How do they digest milk products if they are lactose intolerant? What did Chinese do with cheese?
The recipe below comes from sixteenth-century Shanghai: Mr. Song’s Book of Nourishing Life. As I explain in my recent paper in Gastronomica, Mr. Song recorded all of his mother’s recipes, many of which were for special occasions. This particular recipe turns up in his section on wheat products: noodles, pastries, pancakes, and stuffed pastas. Mr. Song’s family loved fancy noodles, some of which were made with duck eggs and others with cheese.
This was one of three options for won tons. By the early sixteenth century, stuffed pastas had been around for more than a millennium. Chinese cooks had gotten in the habit of throwing just about anything into them (think lychees and persimmons). The cheese reflected the culinary influences of the steppes. You can still find cheese-filled dumplings in Tibet and further west. (A phenomenal recipe for cheese momos appears in Beyond the Great Wall).
The cheese in the recipe is similar to paneer and can be made at home. You should, however, be mindful that our “whole” milk is watery compared to what was available to Mr. Song. The Holstein, the global work “horse” of the dairy industry, produces milk that is on average about 3.25% milk fat. Southern yellow cattle, however, makes milk that is 8% fat. So if cholesterol is not a concern, mix some heavy cream into your milk. It will make a smoother cheese!
The poppy seeds present a second prominent element in the recipe. Like cheese, poppy seeds are rare today in southern Chinese cooking. This owes much to its connection to opium, which has a seedy past (pun intended). In fact, this recipe is missing from the 1989 edition of Mr. Song’s Book of Nourishing Life. Political sensitivities undoubtedly played a role in the editor’s decision to exclude the treat. But the Chinese used to consume many poppy products both as food and as medicine, including the seeds and husks, and not just the highly-addictive sap. In some places, they still do. Only a few years ago, police discovered that a cook in Xi’an had been adding poppy husks to enhance his noodle sales. The trick worked! Customers kept coming back for more.
Whole milk, half gallon
Scallions, one bunch (white parts only)
Vinegar, ¾ cup mixed with equal parts water
Salt (1/2 teaspoon)
Cardamom powder (1/8 teaspoon)
Sichuan peppercorns powder (1/4 teaspoon)
Poppy seeds (2 tablespoons)
4 cups water
Chicken or vegetable bouillon, 1 cube
Scallions, 3 sliced
Vinegar, ½ Tablespoon (or to taste)
Sichuan peppers (1/8 teaspoon)
Chinese dried licorice (2 pieces). If not available, do not substitute for Western licorice (it will overpower your soup). You can use one whole star anise instead.
1. Make the wonton wrappers according to these directions. You can also use pre-bought egg wrappers to save time.
2. Prepare the fresh cheese by following these directions. (Make sure that you do not heat the milk beyond 160 degrees, otherwise the curds will be grainy and hard to handle.) You can also substitute a creamy ricotta or a mascarpone if you don’t have time to make cheese from scratch.
3. Crumble the cheese and mix with the scallions, Sichuan peppercorns, salt, cardamom, and poppy seeds.
4. Fill the wonton wrappers with the fillings. When ready, boil them in a pot of water. The wontons should be done within 2 minutes (they will float to the top of the water when cooked). Remove from the water and strain.
5. Make the soup by combining the scallions, peppercorns, vinegar, and Chinese licorice with the stock. Add salt to taste. Heat and simmer for 10 minutes. When ready, serve a few wontons with soup.