Gretchen’s table: Chili Oil Wontons

Bathed in fiery sauce enlivened with garlic and Sichuan peppercorn, these pork-stuffed wontons are a spicy bowl of perfection. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
Bathed in fiery sauce enlivened with garlic and Sichuan peppercorn, these pork-stuffed wontons are a spicy bowl of perfection. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Raking leaves isn't the only thing I view with trepidation in fall. I also dread the cooldown that comes with the change of season, because turning on the heat in my drafty old house is not an inexpensive proposition.

On the plus side, colder weather calls for cozy pleasures like flannel sheets and turtleneck sweaters, along with comfort foods that warm you up both inside and out.

These deliciously spicy Sichuan wontons from the recently released (and gorgeously photographed) "The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love from a Chinese American Family" will certainly take the chill off a brisk fall day. Wonton wrappers are first stuffed with a savory mix of ground pork and finely chopped cabbage seasoned with soy sauce, ginger and Shaoxing wine. They're then tossed in a fiery sauce starring homemade chili oil, raw and cooked garlic, sugar and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn. Its authors declare the dish "a fiery bowl of perfection," and I heartily agree the silky, spicy bites are pretty irresistible.

That said, it does take some time to prepare the filling and assemble the wontons, more so if you make your own wrappers from flour and water. I used prepared wrappers and it still took an entire episode of "The Voice" to stuff them. Another shortcut: I substituted prepared chili oil instead of making it from scratch.

Depending on the amount prepared and number of people eating, the wontons can be served as an appetizer, side dish or a main course.

This recipe makes enough chili sauce for 15 wontons; if you cook the entire batch, you'll want to double (or even triple) it to assure every last dumpling gets a proper coating.

You can find chili oil, Shaoxing wine and wonton wrappers in Asian markets and most larger grocery stores.



Makes: 30-36 wontons


8 ounces Napa cabbage

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 ounces ground pork

2 tablespoons water, plus more for the pan

1 tablespoon neutral oil

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

30 wonton wrappers, preferably Shanghai style


4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns

1 tablespoon neutral oil

1/3 cup chili oil

2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish

2 scallions, white and green parts, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Make the filling: Slice cabbage leaves lengthwise into thin strips, then finely chop them crosswise. Place in a large bowl and stir in salt, then set aside for 30 minutes to allow salt to draw out water.

In a large bowl, add pork, 2 tablespoons water, oil, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, ginger, sugar and white pepper. Stir vigorously with a pair of chopsticks until filling has emulsified into a paste-like consistency, around 10 minutes.

Squeeze out excess water from cabbage with your hands, then add to pork. Stir thoroughly to incorporate.

Assemble wontons: Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Prepare a small bowl of water. With wonton wrapper in the center of your palm, dab the outer edges of the square with water. To the center, add 1 scant tablespoon of filling. Fold the wonton wrapper in half into a rectangle and press the edges together. Put a dab of water on one of the bottom corners (the filling side, not the seam side).

Bring two bottom corners together and, using the wetting corner to seal the wonton, press the corners together. Place wonton on the sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. Note: Within an hour of assembly you must either cook the wontons or transfer to the freezer to store to up to 3 months.

Prepare sauce: In a large, wide, heatproof bowl, arrange half the garlic, sugar and ground Sichuan peppercorns in small piles next to each other. In a small saucepan, heat neutral oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Use a rubber spatula to scrape all the oil out of the pan and onto the garlic and seasonings. (It will sizzle.) Stir in the chili oil, soy sauce, sesame oil and remaining garlic until well combined.

Cook the wontons: Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add 15 wontons while stirring the water in a circle to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Simmer for 4 to 5 minutes (5 to 6 minutes if frozen), or until wontons float. During cooking, if the water comes back to a boil, add 1/4 cup cold water to bring it back down. Once the wontons are floating, cook for 1 additional minute, then use a spider or slotted spoon to lift them out of the water, allowing any excess water to drain.

Add wontons to pan with sauce, and toss gently to combine. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, scallions and cilantro.

-- "The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love From a Chinese American Family" by Bill, Judy, Sarah and Kaitlin Leung (Clarkson Potter, Nov. 1, 2022, $35)