Making Wontons with Grandma

When my mother came over for her weekly Monday visit, I thought that the kids and I could make her a simple cake in honour of Grandparents Day, which had just passed the day before. The boys readily agreed, and make that cake we did. Sam suggested that we decorate it with flags; I added that little touch. I would have loved to let him (and Nat, if interested) do that themselves, but we were already pushing the time bounds of a weeknight-busy evening, particularly because Natty had a sore throat and needed his sleep more than usual.

But at some point during the afternoon, before I even rounded up the kids for the cake, I overheard some very active making of some kind going on in the kitchen. I eavesdropped from the dining room, and soon knew that I was listening in on one grandmother and two very eager little boys making shrimp wontons. And just like that, my cake-making was trumped before it had begun.

This is the second time in two months that my mother has initiated what I feel like calling the Wonton Whip-Up. The boys love to order shrimp wonton soup whenever we’re in a Chinese restaurant. As in calling out that order across the room to the waitress serving another table kind of love. My mother noticed which, frankly, wasn’t hard, but then she took action.

To streamline things, she first cooks the filling at her house, and then she brings it over with the little wonton wrappers. In case you have never wrapped a wonton before, there is a method: you peel a wrapper off the stack and place it on a flat surface, spoon a dollop of filling in the centre, wet the edges of the wrapper, and then either fold the edges into themselves to make a pouch or, if you’re young, you might take a second wrapper and flatten it over the first, like ravioli.  Naturally, you eat filling as you wrap.

If the wrapper isn’t closed entirely, the wonton will burst while boiling and the contents will spill out. We mentioned this to the boys, but no one harps on it: any spilled filling just ends up at the bottom of the soup bowl and is eaten up too. The boys worked on their dumplings in earnest, and during both Wonton Whip-ups, they didn’t stop wrapping until the filling was gone.

They’re fun to make, but they’re also wonderful to eat. We boiled some of the wontons in a homemade soup stock, and freeze the rest. The boys gobbled up one of their favourite foods, knowing both the process of how that food came to be, and that they were part of it.

After our first try at wontons, I was delighted to come across a book called Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan at the library. It’s about a young Asian girl’s first year joining her female relatives in making dumplings for their New Year’s celebration.  The book in set in Hawaii, which of course is part of its charm, but I actually omit some of the details specific to Hawaii to make it more relevant to our own lives. (It’s hard to find my family’s mixed racial and cultural reality in books, presumably one reason why the author wrote Dumpling Soup, so I hope she’ll understand.)

Especially nice about the book is that it details the process and particularities of dumpling making: the ingredients, the different shapes, the makers’ varying styles, the care that goes into making them. When the protagonist’s mother carries her to bed, the young girl can smell of garlic on her mother’s fingers. I love this concrete, sensory specificity. I know when I am reading that the boys understand exactly what they are seeing and hearing.

As for my mother, she hasn’t yet seen the book. She isn’t on the lookout for relevant life experience materials at the library. She’s just making those experiences happen at our house, by watching and listening to her grandsons, and then offering what she has of herself to their interests. And I notice the concrete, sensory specificity of her actions, how she adds more bamboo shoots or brings bigger wonton wrappers for the children on the second go-around so they’ll be easier for them to handle. If the devil is in the details, he can’t be alone there.

With Grandparents Day on my mind, I was hoping in some small way to pay tribute to my mom when she came to visit my boys, but I guess that’s basically what she does for us whenever she comes over.  I do believe she had the boys at hello.