Citizens – few dishes start hunger pangs within the gastronomic core of the inscrutable TFD more than these treasures of the Dim Sum cart! While they are by no means simple to make at home – I hope you will try these as the quality of har gow is extremely variable in many Chinese restaurants and these are simply unmatched.
As noted in a scholarly article on fft.dhinitiative.org:
Har gow is a Cantonese dumpling that is always a part of dim sum. Har gow is perhaps the most iconic item in dim sum. Dim sum is a famous Cantonese dish that originated from Guangdong, China.
Dim sum is a series of small, bite-sizes snacks. They are usually eaten in a light meal and served with tea. Tea lunch tradition goes back many centuries in China, and has continued to evolve throughout that time. Dim sum means “touch the heart”, and the Cantonese specialty began as a mid- to late-afternoon snack.
Dim sum has transitioned over time to become more often a breakfast or lunch dish. Few restaurants serve dim sum for dinner. Dim sum meals are always served with tea. Yum cha means “drink tea” in English, or to have a tea breakfast or lunch with dim sum food. The two practices, drinking tea and dim sum, are always discussed in relation to each other.
Dim sum became popular during the Tang Dynasty. Its origins are Cantonese, and dianxin was the northern way to say it. In the Guangdong Provence and in Guangzhou, they call “dim sum” “yum cha”. Dim sum was popular in the south, where many people went to and still go to restaurants early in the day to enjoy these labor-intensive small bites. This was usually the first eating time of the day.
There were many recipes for dim sum in the Tang Dynasty. According to the General Annuls of Shandong, Prime Minister Duan Wenchang compiled 50 volumes of dianxin recipes just from those eaten in his Shandong Province.
It took centuries for the art of dim sum to develop. In the Western United States, dim sum came about as a natural result of nineteenth century Chinese immigrants settling in the East and West coasts. Some people believe that dim sum is actually the inspiration for the concept of “brunch” that we have in America today, a way to combine breakfast and lunch into a large midmorning meal. Nowadays there are vegetarian, low fat, and even health conscious alternatives for dim sum dishes.
Dim sum, both in China and in the United States, is often a family affair and the busiest business days are on the weekends. In dim sum restaurants, the first thing that will happen is you will be asked what kind of tea you would like. Every customer gets his or her own pot of tea to drink throughout the dim sum meal.
There are typically no menus, and oftentimes there will be a card with a blank grid that is placed at each table for ordering purposes. Waiters walk around between the tables with carts of different dim sum dishes, including a variety of steamed and fried dumplings. They wheel carts around with samples, calling out the different offerings. Other dim sum dishes include fried crispy rolls and croquettes.
The lighter, steamed dishes, such as har gow come first in the ordering of the cars, then exotic recipes such as chicken’s feet, then deep-fried dishes, and then dessert. The foods are usually served at the table in steamer baskets to keep it warm.
As dim sum is discussed, one of the most popular and important dishes in the dim sum recipes must be discussed: har gow! While har gow is an important dumpling to study in the mapping of dumplings throughout the world, it would be nearly impossible to study har gow without running across the dumpling practice of dim sum in the process, which is why dim sum has been researched as well.
Har gow are related to dim sum, as har gow is one of the main dishes in a dim sum meal. Many dim sum restaurants can be judged off their har gow, and har gow have come to be representative of the quality of the dim sum more generally just from this one recipe.
In traditional Chinese, har gow is written as 蝦餃. The first character of har gow (the “har” or “xia” or ha”) directly translates as “shrimp” in Chinese. The second character, “jiao” or “gow”, translates to the English word “dumpling”. Har gow may also be called a “shrimp bonnet” because of its pleated shape. Har gow are often served together with sieu mai, or shu mai as many of us know it in the States.
The har gow dumpling originated in a teahouse in the Wucu village, a suburban region of Guangzhou. It appeared on the outskirts at a teahouse in the Wucu village; the owner was said to have had access to a river right outside, where shrimp would be caught and directly made into the fresh stuffing for har gow dumplings.
Teahouses sprung up to accommodate travelers who were tired after journeying along the Silk Road. Rural farmers might also go to the teahouses after a long day of working in the field to enjoy an afternoon of tea, dim sum, and relaxing conversation. Today, har gow can be found in most restaurants and teahouses in Guangdong, China. Local people order these shrimp dumplings when they drink their tea at leisure time.
Har gow are steamed shrimp dumplings with a very delicate taste. Traditional fillings are subtly seasoned and the dough wrapping is made from a mixture of wheat starch and tapioca flour. Har gow are immediately recognizable by their dough type. The dough is made of a wheat starch and tapioca base and is quite fragile and tender.
This special dough is prone to splitting open during steaming if the dumpling is not fully pinched closed. Har gow are also characterized by their “snow-white”, “paper-thin”, translucent surrounding. This special type of dough is what makes the har gow somewhat translucent. Fillings are even visible from the outside of the dumpling. The dumplings may appear opaque when they are first removed from the steamer, but they become translucent upon cooling.
The special dough for har gow is called “wheat starch dough.” This dough is not unique to the har gow dumpling; in fact, it is the foundation for many Cantonese dim sum recipes as well. Still, wheat starch dough has an immediate association to har gow. This dough is malleable, sculptable, and easy to manipulate.
Andrea Nguyen even describes this dough as one that feels like play-doh once it is cooked. This is the final texture of the dough, and the color once it is cooked should be a “snowy white” (Nguyen 132). The wheat starch dough cannot be made ahead of time and refrigerated, as many flour dough can be, because it is so prone to splitting open during steaming. When this dough is properly prepared and cooked, the har gow dumpling will be chewy and slightly sticky.
Wheat starch dough is made of a mixture of wheat starch and another type of starch, often tapioca, corn, or potato starch. These other starches add elasticity to the dough, because wheat starch alone would make the dough too firm. The dough for har gow also calls for oil, which is intended to add suppleness and richness.
This wheat starch dough can be prepared up to six hours in advance of using it and can then be stored in a plastic bag at room temperature in order to prevent drying.
For the filling of har gow, the main ingredient is shrimp. In recipes for har gow, it is suggested to use the best and most fresh shrimp possible, and the shrimp must not be overcooked in order to retain a slightly crisp texture.
The other main ingredient in the filling for har gow are bamboo shoots. These have an earth quality and a creamy-white core, giving the filling of har gow a creamy texture inside its coating. Bamboo shoots can be bought fresh, dried, frozen, or canned, though in most cases, people use canned bamboo shoots for making dumplings.
In order to cook them correctly for the har gow, they need to be drained well and rinsed with a lot of cold water after draining. Then, the bamboo shoots are boiled for 10 to 30 minutes to remove their natural toxins and render them tender and crisp.
Har gow are typically smaller than most other Chinese dumplings, and they are always made in the shape of a pouch. Beyond the dough type of har gow, this pouch shape is what makes har gow immediately recognizable and distinct.
Har gow are difficult to prepare only if you aim to make very small and neat ones. In this case, har gow will prove to be quite difficult to make, however, most dim sum places do not aim to have these sorts of har gow. In researching how to make these dumplings, it is suggested to start out with ones that are a little bigger and scale down in size as you gain dexterity.
Traditionally, har gow should have at least seven pleats on each dumpling; preferably they will have ten or more pleats. As with many other dumplings throughout the world, the more pleats a dumpling has, the more “professional” it is and the more experienced the maker supposedly is.
The key to having a successful har gow is making sure that the filling is sealed up well inside of the dough once it is folded. While har gow are most commonly seen in the shape of a pouch, you can also make these dumplings as half-moons and they’ll have a very similar taste, however, traditionally, har gow are made in the shape of a pouch.
I originally found the base recipe for my version of this recipe many years ago, but it seems to have disappeared off the Web. I hope you enjoy the ruthless authenticity of this fantastic dim sum treasure as I have made it my own!
The dough calls for lard – use it, please, it is a vital component of the dough success!!! Don’t be frustrated with the pleating and making of these – practice makes perfect and visual duds will still be delicious – just eat them yourself! 😉
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