You may have had these creamy filled wonton “puffs” at Chinese restaurants and didn’t know exactly what you were eating. Called Crab Rangoon, the wontons are an American classic, an ersatz food invented at Trader Vic’s, the uber San Francisco Bay Area Polynesian-themed restaurant; Trader Vic’s was among the leaders of the tiki-bar/restaurant movement that’s making a comeback today. Crab Rangoon was supposedly based on a Burmese recipe but there’s no proof of that. (Rangoon is also known as Yangon, the former capital of Burma, which is now called Myanmar.)
I’ve not seen a fried dumpling filled with cream cheese in Southeast Asia. Have you?
Crab Rangoon was served in America beginning in perhaps the early 1950s, and since then, it has worked its way onto many Chinese-American restaurant menus as an appetizer item. My Asian friends who grew up in Middle America remember making and eating lots of crab Rangoon. Hsiao-Ching Chou, the former editor of the Seattle Post Intelligencer’s food section, once mentioned the countless crab Rangoons that she prepared at her family’s restaurant in the Midwest. A few weeks ago, I met Monica, a Chinese-American financier who grew up in Wichita, Kansas. When it came to ordering off the Chinese takeout menu for dinner, she swooned at the mention of “fried cream cheese puffs.”
“Oh yum, crab Rangoon,” she said wistfully, dropping all pretensions of being a sophisticated Manhattanite. “I lovvve them.”
When I got home, I looked through my cookbook collection and discovered that I happened to have a copy of the 1968 Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook by owner Vic Bergeron. The fast-paced work is filled with recipes from exotic locales, including many in Asia in addition to wild Mexico, Texas, and bohemian San Francisco where Bergeron built his burgeoning empire. Nowadays, such a book would be politically incorrect because it mashes cultures and cuisines up. Indian recipes are stuck in the Southeast Asia chapter, for example. But the Trader Vic’s cookbook served its purpose to introduce post-war America to the ingredients, flavors, and cooking techniques of ethnic—kind of – cuisines. It was a different era.
Below is a photo of the actual recipe from the Trader Vic's cookbook. Read it and see how it reflects the 1960s:
Over fifty years later, the popularity of crab Rangoon in America has not waned. Whenever my parents go to the Indian gambling casinos, they eat at Asian buffets and guess what is among the selection? When I met Cady, a non-Asian 15 year old, we talked dumplings as they were among her favorite foods. When I mentioned the Asian Dumplings cookbook, she said, “Do you have crab Rangoon in there?”
“No I don’t. They’re not part of the classic Asian repertoire of dumplings,” I responded. But months later, after considering my various friends acquaintances who have experienced crab Rangoon in positive and negative ways, maybe crab Rangoon deserves entry into pantheon of Asian dumplings.
What are your experiences and thoughts about crab Rangoon? Thumbs up or down? Why?
Related link: Crab Rangoon Recipe