The first time I ever had Crab Rangoon was at Trader Vic's in London in the 1970's. Going for dinner was always a big deal — there was no other place like it. The Polynesian themed interiors were dimly lit and featured a quirky mix of tropical South Pacific artifacts, unique island infused cocktails and exotic pan asian cuisine. We always started with the Trader Vic's Pupu Platter of BBQ spareribs, crispy prawns, sliced char sui pork and of course, crab rangoon, which came with a double-dish of Canton Catsup and Mandarin Mustard. Although known for their Mai Tai's, I was partial to their Banana Daiquiri.
Trader Vic's was started by Victor Bergeron in 1934 with a pub called Hinky Dinks in San Francisco. His colourful vocabulary and ribald air made him a popular host, as did his potent tropical cocktail concoctions and delicious Americanized adaptations of Polynesian food. It soon became a popular watering hole that attracted sophisticated urbanites. Vic became the Trader and Hinky Dinks became Trader Vic's. As Vic said at the time, "The south pacific theme intrigues everyone. You think of beaches and moonlight and pretty girls. It's a complete escape."
'Trader' Vic Bergeron
Among Trader Vic's more tantalizing legacies is the Mai Tai, the refreshing rum cocktail he created in 1944, and introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the 50's. Tahitian for 'the very best', Mai Tai became the slogan for his entire operation. In creating his new cocktail, 'Trader' Vic employed what was becoming the ever-present hallmark of all his food and beverage recipes: a light touch, meant to enhance but never disguise nor overpower the fine original taste of his main ingredients. All of his recipes reflected the man’s own personality: distinctive, lighthearted and memorable. However, this was not without controversy. “There has been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai, and I want to get the record straight,” said Bergeron. “I originated the Mai Tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.”
South Pacific culture had a small but growing hold on the popular imagination in the 1930s. Primitive art from the South Seas had fascinated the cultural elite through the paintings of Paul Gauguin, and through a sort of obscure cultural alchemy, Trader Vic’s tapped into the spirit of the times, popularizing these primitive forms and marketing them in the form of the iconic Tiki statues — a symbol which has become synonymous with the Trader Vic's brand.
Crab Rangoon is a perfect festive nibble to serve as an hors d'oeuvre during the holiday season. My version features sliced green onions and worcestershire sauce for added savoury depth, and a bit of fresh ginger and lemon juice to balance the richness of the cream cheese. The recipe couldn't be easier. The wontons do float to the surface as they cook, so a wire skimmer or spatula is useful to keep them submerged to ensure they brown evenly. So pour yourself a Mai Tai or Daiquiri, put on an old recording of Don Ho and slip quietly into tiki-mode.
Makes 24 wontons
8 oz fresh or canned crab meat (or smoked salmon)
8 oz cream cheese with chives, softened (I use Western brand)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger
1/2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 green onion, finely minced
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
24 store-bought wonton wrappers, round or square
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp water
1 egg yolk
vegetable oil for frying
In a large bowl, combine the fresh crab meat with the cream cheese. Fold in the remaining ingredients up to the wonton wrappers and blend to a paste. Taste for seasoning and set aside.
Create the wonton sealing mixture by dissolving the cornstarch in the 2 tablespoons of water. Add the egg yolk and stir until well-incorporated and smooth and set aside.
Place a heaping teaspoon on each wonton. Dip your finger in the egg/cornstarch sealing mixture and lightly paint the borders of the wonton wrapper. Encase the crab filling by folding over the edges of the wrapper to create a triangle or crescent, depending on the shape of the wonton wrapper. Press down to seal the edges with your fingertips. Using the back of a fork, ensure that the wontons are sealed by gently crimping the borders to create a fluted edge. To create a Trader Vic's style beggar's purse, gather all four corners together and pinch or twist to seal. Repeat with remaining wontons.
Preheat oven to 200°F. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches the temperature of 350°. Working in batches, fry the wontons until crispy and golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Drain the wontons on paper towels and keep them warm in the oven while you continue frying the remaining batches. Serve with plum sauce, or hot mustard for dipping, if you like.
Makes 4 cocktails
6 oz light rum
4 tbsp triple sec
6 oz lime juice
4 tsp white sugar
Combine all the ingredients plus 1 cup crushed ice in an electric blender. Blend at a low speed for five seconds, then blend at a high speed until firm. Pour contents into a tall glass and serve. Garnish with a slice of pineapple and a cherry.