These Sichuan-Inspired Wontons Are Filled with Joy (and Sweet Potato)

Chef Ellen Parr of London Chinese restaurant Lucky & Joy switches out the prawn in this veggie version of the classic dumpling dish.

|
12 November 2018, 10:59am

Welcome to Health Goth, our column dedicated to cooking vegetables in ways that even our most cheeseburger-loving, juice-bar-loathing readers would approve of. Not everyone realises this, but vegetables actually do taste good. We invite chefs to prove this assertion—and they do, time and time again.

“It looks better at night time.”

Chef Ellen Parr is showing me around Lucky & Joy, a Chinese pop-up currently based in East London. She switches on a string of fairy lights draped around the restaurant’s large front window and illuminates a neon rainbow that sits between a plastic pineapple and fluffy toy flamingo on a nearby shelf. Most impressive, even in the obtrusive morning light, is a huge projection of a fish tank that takes over an entire wall and bathes the room in funky pink light.

“We always wanted to have a proper fish tank but as we’re a pop-up that moves around, we have to be realistic about what we can do,” says Parr. “So we decided to project a tropical aquarium onto the wall. They’re a bit too big for real life but it’s really fun.”

1541775393907-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road10
Inside Lucky & Joy, a Chinese pop-up on Hackney Road in East London. All photos by the author.

I’m visiting Lucky & Joy at the inopportune time of 10 AM on a Tuesday to try Parr’s sweet potato wontons. Happily for me, the vegetarian dumplings look just as good in the daylight as when the restaurant opens for evening service, and its various light-up objects can be seen in full glory.

“There’s quite a famous wonton dish from Sichuan that uses sweet prawn filling and vinegary, salty dressing,” Parr explains, heading into the open kitchen. “I was trying to think of an alternative and I noticed when I was in the Sichuan province that they bake whole sweet potatoes and serve them with different kind of salts as a street food, so I combined the two ideas and made it into a new dish.”

This innovation is typical of the Lucky & Joy menu, which features dishes from different Chinese provinces, as well as British ingredients and flavours inspired by the Middle East and Mediterranean. Parr developed an interest in Chinese food after a career that took her from the kitchen of iconic London Spanish restaurant Moro to running a themed supper club series.

“I’ve been a chef for 12 years,” she tells me. “I’ve always been interested in different cuisines and cultures and try and incorporate them into my menu as much as possible. It’s just things that I find really delicious. Then I got obsessed with Silk Road [a popular Xinjiang restaurant in South London’s Camberwell]. I started going there all the time and thought everything was so delicious and interesting.”

1541775438453-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road11

After tasting Silk Road’s fragrant lamb skewers and thick, ribbony noodles in pools of spicy chicken broth, Parr was hooked. She devoured books by Chinese food writers Fuchsia Dunlop and Carolyn Phillips, and experimented with dishes in her home kitchen. When she and friend Pete Kelly of drinks production company Background Bars travelled to New York for three months, they spent most of their time in the Manhattan and Flushing Chinatowns.

“We found it super inspirational and tried loads of amazing things I hadn’t really had much exposure to before,” Parr remembers. “I was amazed by the use of cumin and coriander and yogurt. We thought it’s such an interesting cuisine, it would be amazing to research it and get inspired by it and make our own. Then we ended up going to China for a research trip.”

Parr and Kelly travelled across China, starting with hand-pulled noodles in the north then sampling Arab-tinged Uyghur cuisine and Sichuan’s signature hot and sour flavours. In the Yunnan restaurants of Shanghai, they ate dishes dotted with fresh goat cheese.

“We were educating ourselves about these amazing ways of cooking and types of dishes and cuisines,” Parr says. Back in London, she and Kelly decided to put their newfound passion for Chinese cuisine into a dining venture, and Lucky & Joy was born.

1541775750938-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road9

Its first location was a railway arch near Cambridge Heath station, where Parr served dishes inspired by the research trip to China: Xinjiang cumin lamb ribs, Sichuan-style chicken, and steamed fish with black beans. They covered the makeshift space with lucky cats, plastic flowers, fish-shaped vases, and of course, plenty of fairy lights.

“Pete is the boss when it comes to visuals but we both really love the fun playful stuff that we found in Hong Kong and we want it to be a fun, vibey kind of experience for people to come and eat.”

Lucky & Joy landed in its latest home just over a month ago, and the vibe is just as … vibey. As well as the fairy lights, favourite dishes have made it over from the Cambridge Heath pop-up—including the sweet potato wontons.

“People come back over and over again to get the sweet potato wontons, they’ve become a real favourite,” Parr says. “If my friends come and eat, they get really angry if they’re not on the menu.”

1541775712078-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road19
Garlic and ginger for the wontons' chili vinegar dressing.

Parr serves her wontons with a chili vinegar dipping sauce, which she begins constructing while the sweet potatoes roast in the oven. She chops garlic and ginger, then mixes with soy sauce, black vinegar, golden syrup, Sichuan pepper, and a lot of chili oil.

“We make our own chili oil, we infuse spices and chilis into oils slowly and then add a load of Turkish chili flakes at the end so it gets a vibrant colour,” she says, ladelling a portion of the zingy red liquid from a huge container floating with chilis.

1541775623856-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road18
Chef Ellen Parr scoops out the sweet potato flesh.

Dressing done, Parr removes the sweet potato from the oven and scoops out the centre, then places it back on the roasting tray. It goes into the oven for an additional ten minutes.

“You want the potato to get really nice and sweet and you don’t want a wet wonton mixture because it will seep through the pastry,” Parr explains. “And then you have to season the mixture with spring onions, ginger, sesame oil, and salt to taste.”

As the sweet potato completes its roasting time, she arranges pre-made wonton wrappers on the counter.

1541775533802-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road13
The seasoned sweet potato filling is added to the wonton wrappers.
1541775481881-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road23
Parr folds the wontons into money bags.

“You don’t need to be a skilled dumpling maker to make a wonton, you can either do the fold over triangle ones which are super easy or you can scoop them up like money pouches,” Parr says. “There’s plenty of YouTube videos showing you how to do it but they’re pretty forgiving. Rustic is OK with a wonton, whereas with a dumpling, that’s not the case so much.”

For all her claims of not being a skilled dumpling folder, Parr does a pretty good job. Sweet potato now out of the oven and seasoned, she places spoonfuls onto the wonton skins and gathers them into small money bags, sealing the top with water. They are then placed in a pot of boiling water to cook for between two and three minutes.

lucky-and-joy-hackney-road
The cooked wontons are cover with the chili and vinegar dressing.

After that, the wontons are tossed in the chili dressing and plated up.

“You want the filling to be sweet and sesame and rich and then the dressing to be sour and salty and spicy,” Parr says, sprinkling the finished dish with sesame seeds and sliced spring onion. “They compliment each other really nicely.”

1541775366031-lucky-and-joy-hackney-road7head
Sweet potato wontons with chili vinegar dressing, topped with spring onion and sesame seeds.

I waste no time in forking one of the money bags, glistening with vinegar and soy, into my mouth. Parr is right—the sweet potato filling forms the perfect caramelly counterpoint to the chili dressing and crunchy sesame seed topping. As I go in for a second wonton, I know that this won't be the last time I eat at Lucky & Joy.

Next time, though, I'll visit after dark.