The Enigmatic Crab Rangoon

Crab Rangoon are crab and cheese-stuffed won tons. Make some for your next luau.
We adore Chinese food in all its permutations.

Although New York City’s Chinatown affords anyone the opportunity to dine upon bona fide Chinese cuisine, our most favored guilty pleasure a family meal at an old-school Chinese-American restaurant. We heartily tuck into shared plates of Steak Hawaii, Lake Tung Ting Shrimp, and Crab Rangoon, blissfully ignoring the blatant inauthenticity of these dishes.

The pretty names and modified recipes are designed to appeal to the American patron. Steak Hawaii, a mid-century Cantonese-style dish, is obviously named for its inclusion of pineapple, not some fancy South Sea beef. Dongting Lake, China’s second largest freshwater body of water, is not the source of the 1970s-era jumbo shrimp and vegetable stir fry. And what about Crab Rangoon, those deep-fried dumplings filled with a mixture of cream cheese, minced crab, and seasonings? That connection is a bit murkier.

A cursory online search will reveal two popular origin stories. The details vary from source to source, but one story tells the tale of a dish resembling present-day Crab Rangoon emerging around the turn of the 20th century in British-controlled Burma, while another recounts the moment when Victor Bergeron of legendary tiki restaurant Trader Vic's invented it through sheer genius.

The Burmese connection is highly unlikely. This theory is based largely on the fact that Rangoon is the former name of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). There were never really that many British citizens living in Rangoon during the British rule (1824-1948). Mostly men, they seemed to have spent more time shoehorning the British class system into Burma’s native culture than dabbling in fusion cuisine. Besides, neither crab nor filled dumplings were common foodstuff in that era.

Few restaurant impresarios were as inventive as Trader Vic. He regularly adapted dishes he encountered during his travels in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and the South Pacific to appeal to American tastes. Ever the showman, Vic would paint a colorful backstory (with the creative input of trusted employees like manager Polly Ho) for much of the food and drink served at his restaurants. Crab Rangoon fits this to a tee.

How to fold a won ton.
Trader Vic’s Pacific Island
, 1968.
In the August 11, 1968 Honolulu Advertiser, Jane Alender Carey’s detailed restaurant review of the Trader Vic’s on Ward Avenue mentions “the new crab puffs (a combination of crab and cream cheese and spices, styled like a won ton)”. Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook, published earlier that same year provides further insight: a lovely illustrated guide to the folding methods used in creating pork-filled wonton precedes an entry for “crab rangoon”, described as an alternate filling for the same wonton wrappers.

While this suggests that Trader Vic did indeed invent the name, and that the very first plate of crab and cheese filled wontons was most likely served at one of his restaurants, Trader Vic definitely did not invent fried wonton. That innovation came about sometime during the Tang Dynasty, and Chinese folks had been serving up fried wonton in Hawaii and the mainland for nearly 70 years before the first Trader Vic’s opened.

Whether Trader Vic himself or some unsung culinary wizard came up with swapping out pork for a crab and cheese filling remains a mystery. Perhaps a nine part PBS documentary à la Ken Burns is in order.

In the meanwhile, try our recipe and enjoy the Crab Rangoon either now or on February 13th, which was declared National Crab Rangoon Day in 2009. In case you’re disinclined to make your own, yet are interested in finding spots to celebrate across the country, this unofficial holiday even has its own official website. Enjoy!

Crab Rangoon

Makes about 50

A-1 Steak Sauce is Trader Vic’s “secret” ingredient, which adds depth to the filling’s flavor. We’ve added scallions and ginger to the mix, doubled the filling amount per rangoon, and used the classic flower fold for our fried dumplings.
  • 1/2 pound (4 ounces) crab meat, picked through, minced
  • 1/2 pound (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 2 tablespoons minced scallions
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon A-1 Steak Sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 package Wonton wrappers (about 50)
  • Vegetable or peanut oil for deep-frying
In a medium bowl, gently combine crab, cream cheese, scallions, ginger, A-1 sauce, and garlic powder. (Or mix up one of our filling variations, below).

Heat oven to 250°F with rack in the middle position. Place a wire cooling rack on a baking sheet; set aside.

Prepare a small bowl of water for moistening the wrappers; line a baking tray with parchment for the folded rangoon; set aside.

To assemble, place one heaping teaspoon filling in center of a wrapper. Moisten edges and fold all four corners together; pinch to seal edges tightly. Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheet; cover with damp towel to keep from drying out. Continue filling and folding until all wrappers are filled.

Heat oil in a wok or deep fat fryer to 360°F. When oil is ready, carefully carefully slide each rangoon in, taking care not to overcrowd, and fry for 1-2 minutes, turning once. Remove cooked rangoon with tongs or slotted spoon; transfer to wire rack on baking sheet, then place sheet in oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining rangoons, allowing oil to return to 360°F between batches. Serve hot with sweet ‘n’ sour sauce or Chinese hot mustard.

Make ahead tips: Filling can be prepared one day ahead: cover and refrigerate. Wrappers can be filled and refrigerated for up to one day before cooking, or frozen for up to 3 months. Cook frozen wonton 2-4 minutes, then continue with directions.

Other Rangoon Fillings

Smoked Salmon Rangoon

Fills about 50 wrappers
  • 1/2 pound (4 ounces) smoked salmon
  • 1/2 pound (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon minced scallion
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • Salt, to taste

Vegetarian Rangoon

Fills about 50 wrappers
  • 1 pound (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons minced scallion
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon celery salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper