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One of China’s most successful franchise stories comes from Putian, a coastal city in Fujian with a population of about 3 million. The province is probably known best for the many who leave it, especially those who have been smuggled into the United States by snakeheads, and including domestic emigrants who move to hub cities, bringing their culinary traditions along with them.

After the boom of the post-Reform and Opening period, Putian residents started spreading their culinary diaspora via “thousand mile fragrant” wontons (千里香馄饨, qiānlǐxiāng húntun), a dish made famous after Premier Zhou Enlai praised it decades before. By the 1990s, shops selling these wontons had popped up all over the country outside of schools, targeting young diners for their after-school snack. In Shanghai alone, there are almost 380 shops selling them (KFC, for comparison, has just 360 shops in the city). Owners attribute the success of the dumpling franchise to its universal appeal – although it’s a Fujian specialty, its allure crosses provincial boundaries – and its reputation of reliability no matter where you go in the country draws diners in.

While the wontons are hand-wrapped at each stall, the nuts and bolts of the bite-sized dumplings are generally sent in from a centralized processing plant to guarantee consistency. The key to the perfect wontons is fourfold: toasted sesame oil, tasty soup, good pork and special wonton skins.

Hand-wrapped thousand mile fragrant wontons, photo by UnTour ShanghaiThe incredibly thin wrappers, made from wheat and glutinous rice flour, are almost translucent, often flatteringly referred to in Chinese as “crystal,” with a mouthfeel that can only be described as slippery smooth. The soup is boiled for hours with chicken and pork bones, spices (like star anise), seaweed and shrimp shells to extract the essence of the ingredients, then the wontons are hand-stuffed with fresh minced pork leg (ideally from an animal that has been slaughtered on the same day) and lard, then dropped into the soup for a quick boil that allows the savory broth to soak through and flavor the pork filling. A pinch of green onions is thrown in at the end to add a burst of freshness.

Just as popular for takeaway (带走, dàizǒu) as it is for dining in, each location also sells the wontons for cooking at home. Still handmade to order, the pork parcels are served dry in a doggy bag, along with two separate containers: one with the fresh herbs and the other with the broth. All you need is a bubbling wok.

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