Sweet and savory. Slippery and slick. Juicy and tender. Hot and sour. Garlicky. So. Freaking. Good.
These are all words that should enter your head as you slide back a bowl of suanla chaoshou, the Sichuan-style wontons that come coated in an intensely aromatic sauce made with vinegar, garlic, and roasted chili oil.
I first tasted a version of the dish at Mary Chung, the Cambridge restaurant that, as far as I know, was responsible for introducing Sichuan-style Chinese cuisine to Americans at a time when Chinese-American cuisine (think: chop suey, General Tso's, and beef with broccoli) was all that was around. In retrospect, it wasn't a particularly good version—not nearly oily or spicy enough. But I admire Mary for her tenacity and for inspiring the Boston Sichuan scene to proliferate in the way it did. I have Mrs. Chung's success to thank for the wontons in chili oil, Chongqing-style hot and numbing chicken, and mapo tofu that were the mainstay of my diet for the decade that I lived in the area.*
* I also have her to thank for the highlight of my very short career as a rock star: the band in which I occasionally sang and played guitar performed at the All-Asia Lounge in Central Square, a restaurant operated by Mary Chung's daughter and her husband. The band was called The Emoticons. Really.
This past summer I finally had the opportunity to taste my favorite Sichuan dishes in their native land and was quite happily surprised to find that the very best versions we can get back stateside—at restaurants like Fuloon, in Malden, MA—are on par with what I had in Chengdu (and to be frank, far better than anything you'll find at Mary Chung these days). That is to say, insanely delicious.
Like many Asian dishes, suanla choushou is as much about textural contrast as it is about flavor. The skins should be slippery and tender, with a flavor that is almost bland compared with the sweet, mild pork filling (sweet but not cloying, as some versions tend to be). In turn, the wontons as a whole are also bland when compared with the sauce. It's the sauce that brings on the contrasts with its almost overly intense flavor, thanks to sweet Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce, and plenty of chili oil with crunchy bits of fried dried chilies. It's the same sauce you'll find on a number of cold appetizers in the Sichuan repertoire and one that's worth learning how to make.
Forming the Wontons
For the wontons, I use a simple mix of ground fatty pork (ask your butcher to grind up some extra-fatty pork shoulder for you or look for the whitest, streakiest grind you can find in the supermarket display) flavored with Chinese chives or scallions, a little garlic, white pepper, salt, sugar, and a splash of Shaoxing wine or dry sherry.
Just like when making gyoza, having a station set up for wontons is essential if you want to keep things neat and efficient. That means a cutting board to work on, a stack of wonton wrappers (look for the thinnest pre-made wrappers you can find) covered in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out, a small bowl of water for moistening the edge of the skins, a bowl of the filling, a kitchen towel for wiping your fingers clean, and a plate or tray to place the finished wontons.
The classic shape for wontons is what Fucshia Dunlop refers to as "water caltrops" in her amazing book Every Grain of Rice (order it now if you don't own it already!). It's made by forming a triangle and folding the two "arms" of the triangle across each other (choushou, the Sichuanese term for these wontons translates as "folded arms").
To form the wontons, place a tablespoon or so of filling in the center of the wonton square.
Moisten two of the edges of the wrapper with a bit of water from the tip of your finger (do not over-moisten, just a little dab'll do ya).
Fold the wrapper over to form a triangle, squeezing out any excess air as you seal the edges.
Moisten one corner of one of the arms, then gently pull the arms across each other.
The most common mistake I see is to fold the arms across the "belly" of the wonton so that you end up with something nearly cylindrical. Instead, the arms should be pulled downward away from the pointed end of the triangle. This plumps up the belly and creates a shape that's much better suited to picking up sauce.
Transfer the finished wontons to a plate or a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet as you form them.
Once you've completed all your wontons, they are ready to cook immediately or to freeze for later use. To freeze, place the entire plate of wontons into the freezer uncovered and let them rest until fully frozen, about half an hour, then transfer the frozen wontons to a zipper-lock freezer bag, squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the bag, and store them for up to 2 months. The wontons can be boiled straight from frozen.
Making the Sauce
Suanla literally translates to sour-hot and the sauce is precisely that: A combination of vinegar and chili oil.
OK, it's a bit more complicated than that, but not by much. You can start with a high quality store-bought roasted chili oil (look for jars with lots of chili sediment packed in deep red oil in them from your local Asian market), but you get better flavor and more control if you make it yourself.
The simplest Sichuan roasted chili oil is made by toasting small dried chilies until fragrant, crushing them, then steeping them in hot oil until the oil turns dark red. For this version, I also like to add some Sichuan peppercorns to the mix for their citrus-like aroma and mouth-numbing qualities. The easiest way to toast chilies is actually in the microwave. Just a few seconds on high power on a microwave-safe plate does the trick.
Once the chili oil is done, the rest of the sauce is a snap: Chinkiang black vinegar and soy sauce are mixed with sugar until the sugar dissolves, then some fresh garlic and sesame oil round out the flavor. Toasted sesame seeds and crushed peanuts are a welcome (though totally optional) garnish.
Like many Sichuan dishes, the sauce is quite oily—there should be a crimson streak of fiery chili oil on the surface of the sauce. As you drag your wontons up through it, it coats them in a red slick, their nooks and crannies picking up drops of vinegar and bits of crispy roasted chilies and peanuts.
This is what I call lunch.