Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, monthly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.
Suzhou, located next door to Shanghai in eastern China, is often referred to (in cliched tourist brochures, at least) as “the Venice of the East” thanks to its criss-crossing canals. Ask a Chinese food connoisseur about the city meanwhile, and most will highlight its signature sweetness, freshwater seafood, and high standards for noodles.
Bubble wontons (or pàopào húntún 泡泡馄饨), on the other hand, are a lesser-known specialty of the city — though they’ve gone viral over Chinese media, they are virtually impossible to find written about in English. The bite-sized morsels are so named for the air inside that makes these wontons float to the surface of the soup they are served swimming in.
To snag a bowl of these light yet filling wontons, Suzhou locals flock to popular restaurant Chen Family Wonton (陈记馄饨), which is full save for one table during our lunchtime visit. The eatery, which has been running for over 30 years, has had to expand into the storefront next door to accommodate hungry crowds.
Inside Chen Family Wontons (陈记馄饨)
True to its name, this is an entirely family-run business — husband, wife, and in-laws all work in the kitchen as well as behind the counter, wrapping and boiling their locally famous confections. Unlike other wonton shops in the area, bubble wontons are this shop’s specialty. On most days, Mr. Chen, the husband, can be seen dabbing in the filling and folding bubble wontons at a rapid-fire pace — a dumpling every one to two seconds.
The secret to a bubble wonton’s buoyancy is the tiny modicum of filling — a single bowl of pork filling can last almost a full day’s worth of dumplings. So little is used, in fact, that Suzhou people quip that the pigs themselves love them, since they “only need to lose a bit of skin.”
An Illustrated Guide to Chinese Dumplings
Though Suzhou locals know how to appreciate these specialities, such appreciation often gives way to puzzlement in other parts of China, where wontons are known for thicker skin or more generous fillings. In 2019, bubble wontons went viral on Chinese social media, when one netizen posted a video captioned, “Suzhou wonton, where’s my meat?” Similar videos quickly circulated throughout the web, and netizens presumably from other Chinese regions took the opportunity to chime in. “Is there a problem with my eyes?” wrote one user. “I really can’t find the meat.” Another complained: “This is stupid. Can this really be called wontons?”
But that comes part and parcel with local tastes. Food from Jiangnan — the region directly south of the Yangtze River, where Suzhou is located — is perhaps best known around China for its delicate sophistication. With so little pork inside, these bubble wontons become more about the thinly-stretched dough casing and the savory, rich broth that drenches the dumplings.
On Dianping (China’s answer to Yelp) diners consistently praise how much these wonton skins soak up the broth — slow-cooked with pork thigh bone — as well as the fresh, light bubbles that burst with flavor in the mouth. “Out of all the bubble wonton shops in Suzhou, I still think these are the most authentic and delicious,” reads one food blogger’s ebullient praise of Chen Family Wonton.
A bowl of bubble wontons (泡泡馄饨)
Though other wontons may get more coverage, it’s refreshing to see just how diverse this type of dumpling actually gets throughout different regions of China.
A shout out to Lost Plate Food Tours for turning us onto this local specialty.
All images: Mayura Jain
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