Har Gow and Dim Sum
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.
History and Spread of Dim Sum
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.
Har Gow: Etymology, Origin, and History
In traditional Chinese, har gow is written as 蝦餃. In simplified Chinese, it is written as 虾饺. Har gow is just one way of spelling this dumpling. Common other phonetic spellings and transliterations are ha gow and har gau, xia jiao, hark au, har gao, ha gau, har gaw, hark aw, ha kaw, ha gaau, har gaau, or har cow. 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: Dough, Filling, Shape, Size, and Description
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. Nguyen describes Har gow as “pinkish white morsels” in his book, Asian Dumplings: Mastering gyōza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More. The reason for their pinkish tint is because of the shrimp inside. The dough is so light and almost clear, that the pink from the shrimp comes through making the dumplings look “pinkish” themselves. Nguyen also says, “when cooked, this dough has a translucency that allows the filling colors to visible in a beautiful, impressionistic way (Nguyen 132.)
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.
History of Dumplings in China and Cultural Significance
Throughout China, the basic foods are somewhat similar in different regions of the country. The climate in Northern China is more suitable to grow wheat than to grow rice, and therefore wheat is the main crop for northerners, and is made into noodles and dumplings. Crop rotation allowed for wheat and millet to be grown, and there was a continued spread of these crops throughout Northern China. New milling methods made wheat even easier to use, in its flour form, which became more accessible to everyone.
Northern Chinese people depend on wheat for their starch staple, and perhaps the most popular and important use of wheat is in the form of dumplings and noodles. The basis of Northern Chinese people’s diet was a boiled grain, something which provided the majority of the calories for their meal. Boiled flour products were also important throughout all of China, and in the North, there was a particular emphasis on steamed flour products.
For the rest of China, wheat products are primarily snacks, which is precisely what dim sum is. Dim sum is seen as a snack that is light on dough and is intended to be eaten between meals as a refreshment. In the north, the dumplings have a thicker wrapper and less filling, such as plain steamed bread like buns. Dumplings are hearty and often eaten as a meal in themselves, whereas in Southern China, dumplings are served as dim sum, for snacking or a light meal.
While there was no information on when har gow specifically are eater, all dumplings are popular on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in China (the dumplings are made in advance so that less time is taken away from the festivities). During the eve and day of the Lunar New Year, no sharp instruments (i.e. knives) are to be used because the Chinese believe that if they cut something, then their luck in the coming year will be “cut.” This is one of the main reasons that dumplings are a common delicacy at New Year’s festivities, because dumplings do not require a knife in order to be eaten.
In Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch, the author explains: “One restaurateur proudly told me that on a weekend his restaurant offered more than 100 different dim sum dishes, and that seven men were employed just to make dumplings.” (Blonder 9.) Not only are dumplings an essential part of dim sum, but dim sum is essential to study when learning about varieties of dumplings in China. The history of the two is intertwined in a way, because dim sum would not be the same without the har gow dumpling, and dim sum is also an area of the dumpling mapping project that can string together many of the Chinese dumplings.
Har Gow Recipe from Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings, and Breads
1 pound raw shrimp
2 tablespoons minced parboiled pork fat or fatty bacon
¼ cup finely chopped bamboo shoots
1 small egg white
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cornstarch
dash white pepper
½ tsp. sugar
1 tsp. dry sherry
2 tsp. sesame oil
Shell and devein the shrimp. Chop the fat and bamboo shoots and set them on a plate. Rinse and drain the shrimp and pat them dry with paper towels. Chop them fine, then put them in a bowl and add the egg white and the 1 tsp. of salt. Stirring with chopsticks, make sure the shrimp is completely coated. Then add the cornstarch, pepper, sugar, sherry, sesame oil and mix some more until the coating is smooth. Add the bamboo shoots and fat and mix well.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, so the shrimp will absorb the egg whites, making the filling tender crisp.
½ pound wheat starch, about 1 ½ cups
1/3 cup tapioca flour
¼ tsp. coarse salt
1 ½ cups boiling water
2 tablespoons corn oil or peanut oil
Combine the wheat starch, tapioca flour, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the boiling water all at once. With chopsticks, stir to incorporate the dry flour on the sides of the bowl; then add the oil. Continue to stir until a ball forms. Turn the hot dough onto a work surface and knead the ball of dough until it is very smooth—about 2 to 3 minutes. Put it in a tightly closed plastic bag and let it rest for 5 minutes.
Divide the dough into four pieces. Keep three of tem in the plastic bag while you roll the first with your hands into a sausage shape about 6 to 8 inches long. Cut it into ten pieces. Smear a tiny bit of oil on the plastic wrap covering both sides of the tortilla press and a tiny bit on the dough pieces themselves. Place one piece cut side down on the press and press it into a 3-inch round. Put the circles of dough aside, overlapping, while you press the others. It is better to fill these ten wrappers first than to make wrappers out of the remaining dough, because you want the wrapper dough to remain soft and pliable.
Take one wrapper and press and pinch four to five ¼ inch pleats, thus making a small pouch. Put 2 teaspoons of shrimp filling in the pouch and press the edges together to close.
Steam the dumplings- cooking time will be 4 to 5 minutes. The Cantonese often use oyster sauce as a dip for the shrimp dumplings.
Ha Gow Recipe from Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch
8 ounces medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, cut into 1/2 –inch chunks
3 tablespoons minced bamboo shoots
½ teaspoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon rice wine or dry sherry
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Wheat Starch Dough rolled into four 8-inch cylinders
Mix the filling ingredients and set aside. Oil several 8 or 9 inch round cake pans. Cut each cylinder of wheat starch dough crosswise into 8 pieces. Put one piece of dough, cut side up, between two 6-inch squares of baking parchment; then position the flat side of a cleaver blade or a flat bottom of a pan over it and press straight down to form a 3-inch circle. Peel off the parchment.
Make one very narrow pleat that extends from the edge almost all the way to the center of the circle. Make 7 or 8 more narrow pleats alongside, each almost overlapping the last. Your final pleat should be just over halfway around the circumference of the dough. Press a finger lightly along the inside of the pleats to flatten them slightly and enlarge the pocket within. Spoon about a teaspoon of the filling into the pocket, keeping it from touching the open edge of the dough. Pinch the edges of the dough together very firmly. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Arrange the finished dumplings ½ inch apart in the oiled pans.
Set up a steamer and bring the water to a boil. Steam the dumplings over high heat for 7 minutes, replenishing the pot with boiling water as necessary between batches. Let the dumplings rest for a few minutes before transferring them to a serving plate. Serve hot.
Wheat Starch Dough:
1 ¼ cups wheat starch
¼ cup tapioca flour (seems to help sealed edges stick together better)
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
In a medium bowl, combine the wheat starch, tapioca flour, and salt. Add the boiling water and the oil and stir with chopsticks or a wooden spoon. While the dough is still very hot, turn it out onto a board dusted with 1 tablespoon of wheat starch. Kneed until smooth, adding a little more wheat starch if necessary. The dough should be soft but not sticky.
Divide the dough into thirds. Use your palms to roll each portion into an 8-inch cylinder. Cover loosely with a slightly damp paper towel to keep the dough from drying out. The dough is now ready to cut and press or roll out as needed.