Sunday, September 22, 2013

They don't make shrimp dumplings (Har Gow) like they used to

One of the main Cantonese culinary rituals we enjoy is the weekend brunch indulgence of dim sum.  It's something we could look forward to after a late night at a weekend milonga - waking up late, going to our favourite dim sum restaurant, and eating several piping hot bamboo steamers of fluffy white bbq pork buns, har gow, shumai while sipping rich dark pu erh tea to aid in digestion.  Heaven!

This is the best photo of har gow we have found so far on the internet - the wrapper is translucent, the dumpling is plump and the shrimp is a faint visible pink...Just one thing no good - the dumpling are outside the paper insert and touching the bamboo steamer.  This would be a FAIL back in a Hong Kong dim sum restaurant in the sixties and you will have to throw the dumplings in the trash!*

* Man Yung would like to comment: "Actually, we didn't use a paper insert in the sixties - this would be an automatic FAIL because the dumplings would be stuck to the paper.  We used a stainless steel perforated plate, coated slightly with oil to hold the dumplings in the steamer.  They don't do it any more because 1) the stainless steel plate costs money, 2) oiling the plate and putting the har gow onto it takes time and effort.  This photo shows that the chef didn't care about presentation or the food he was serving - he just threw the dumplings in and expected people to take it or leave it!"

Unfortunately, the standards of our neighbourhood dim sum restaurants have plummeted in recent years.  The dim sum chefs who had been rigorously trained in Hong Kong are getting older, so many have retired without passing on their dim sum secrets to the next generation.  There's always a shortage of young people who want to enter into the dim sum profession, so anyone who wants to be a dim sum chef can go and apprentice themselves at a restaurant, learn a couple of things - and then they would easily be able to find employment anywhere without really being proficient at making dim sum.  On top of this, so many restaurants have opened that there is too much competition.  Restaurants everywhere have lowered their prices to compete, and in order to still make their bottom line, they cut corners on ingredient quality and also the quality of their chefs.  Many have even reduced the quality of their tea - as one of our friends complained, "Is this really tea, or brown coloured water that tastes like cockroach insecticide?"

At many dim sum restaurants, instead of great food and good service, we find terrible food and rude service.  Yet people still line up at peak times because the prices are cheap, and restaurants try their best to attract their customers with thing like "free soy milk while you wait", "shoe shine while you wait", or "free gifts and coupons if you eat here often"!

Man Yung knows a lot about dim sum.  He used to be a dim sum apprentice in his teens.  When he tells me about the authentic, delicious dim sum they used to make, it makes me want to cry.

"Just take this har gow, for instance."  He picked one of the shrimp dumplings up with his chopsticks from the bamboo steamer.  The wheat flour wrapper was stuck to the steamer and it promptly tore apart with the shrimp filling falling out.  "They have steamed it for too long, and this makes the wrapper soggy and easy to tear.  The wrapper should be elastic, thin and transparent and shouldn't fall apart or stick."

"What was har gow like in the sixties when you worked in dim sum?" I asked.

"All us dim sum apprentices used to go to different dim sum restaurants on our day off just to see the quality of dim sum at other restaurants.  One thing we must try was the har gow.  You can tell the quality of the whole restaurant's dim sum just by trying this one dish, so dim sum chefs took a lot of care into making sure that their har gow was perfect.

In order to prepare the filling, you need fresh peeled and deveined shrimp.   These days I often find shrimp in my har gow with their INTESTINES INTACT.  This is a very nasty surprise, it shows that the kitchen is understaffed or not paid enough to care about deveining their shrimp. 

The chopped shrimp has to be lightly "thrown" against the side of the mixing bowl in order to make the texture of the shrimp more springy.  These days many chefs add harsh chemicals to the shrimp to improve the texture - some of the chefs refuse to eat at their own restaurants because obviously, the chemicals are not good for your health.

Now, many chefs just stuff a whole lot of shrimp into the wrapper, steam it, and that is that - and people say, "Oh, what great har gow, there's so much shrimp!"  They don't know what a har gow is supposed to taste like.  A lot of shrimp, or entirely shrimp is not the hallmark of a good har gow.  A good har gow is a balance of several ingredients.

The har gow we used to make had fresh bamboo shoots - and not just bamboo shoot, but the tenderest TIP of the bamboo shoot.  That is boiled, chopped and then put into a wooden press with a twisting mechanism so to squeeze out all the water.  If the bamboo shoot water was not completely pressed out, there would be a pungent vegetation taste in the bamboo shoot and the bamboo shoots would go rancid easily.

In addition, we would add fatty pork belly to the har gow.  We would take a slab of pork belly, boil it until the fat was translucent, and then cool the fat down and chop it into fine cubes to be mixed with the shrimp and the bamboo shoot.  Yes, there is pork fat in great har gow.  The fragrant fat from the pork belly melts when steamed with the har gow filling.  The bamboo shoot absorbs some of this flavour, and the melted fat makes the har gow filling juicy.  When you bite into the har gow, this juice runs out and fills your mouth, and you experience the textures of the smooth and elastic wrapper, springy shrimp, crunchy bamboo all at once.  Har gow supposed to have a multi-dimensional taste."

"I don't think they make har gow - or any other dim sum - the way they used to." I said.

"Even the way they cook it is different.  In order to save time and effort, they just steam a whole lot until it is cooked and let it stand by.  When an order came in - they would REHEAT a steamer of already cooked har gow and serve it.  Oh, this would totally ruin the har gow, the wrapper would certainly break apart like the one I showed to you.  In the past, they never steamed more than 20 steamers at once - and those would sell out almost instantly.  Only if they ran out would they steam another batch.  This ensured that the har gow would always be hot and optimal in taste and temperature."

A couple of simple short cuts here and there - and they have ruined the mighty shrimp dumpling.  They might use more shrimp, or decorate with bright orange flying fish roe, or dye the wrapping bright green with spinach juice, or they might top with gold leaf and truffle shavings and charge a premium for the "fusion-inspired" offering.  Some people might think that all this new fanciness is great.  Who cares about the traditional way, this is even better! 

Only people who knew (or cared to inform themselves) how it used to be will know the difference.  Will you be the ones who would be easily fooled and dazzled by the new-fangled tricks and gimmicks, or will you be able to tell that what you are being served is a bunch of substandard crap?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Improved by Tango?

A Barrio Milonga in La Boca - the sweet old couple in the front has been together and dancing tango for over sixty years!  They are in love and very happy - and still dancing every Saturday night.

Sometimes Man Yung wishes we never took up Tango...that is, when we we want to kill each other over a disagreement about steps!  However, for me anyway (oh look, Man Yung is still muttering to himself that if we didn't dance Tango, we would never argue - ha ha, good luck!), I think Tango has vastly improved our lives and I'm glad that we are dancing Tango.  We get more exercise, we are happier, we are more social, we have made great friends, we are more mentally balanced, we are less stressed...

When we see examples of miserable people in real life, we always think that their lives could be improved if they took up Tango.

We have a neighbour in his late fifties who lives alone.  He seems like a friendly, normal guy - but we have never seen him with any friends over, nor does he ever date.  He doesn't have to work anymore, but apart from visiting his mother at the retirement home nearby three times a day, he doesn't go out except to shop for groceries.  He only eats healthy food, mostly vegetables with little oil, little salt, no sugar.  He also worked out religiously - but all that healthy living didn't help because he got very very sick for a while.  Thankfully, he has recovered, but life is still monotonous because when we talk to him, he says the highlight of his day is seeing his mother and all the other old people at the retirement home. 

I know someone in my profession who is stressed out of her mind with work.  At the office she is constantly freaking out - yelling, slamming down the phone, throwing things, storming out of the office because she can't take it anymore.  However, she can't just leave her work behind, even when she is home she is talking to her clients and replying to emails.  If she is able to sleep, she jolts awake because she has just remembered something urgent that she has forgotten to do in the office, or she had a nightmare about something going terribly wrong with work.  To compensate for the stress, she takes jet vacations and cruises every two months - however she never quite lets go and by the time she stops thinking about work she has to come back to it.  Instead of being refreshed, she is exhausted by her vacations and it doesn't take half a day before she is yelling and throwing things again.

There's a couple who is obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses.  Every time we see them, she's got new luxury handbags and shoes that cost thousands of dollars, and he's got the latest trendy electronic gadgets - and they want everyone to know about it.  They also want everyone to know where they have been eating - their Instagram and Facebook pages are filled with photos of upscale food from upscale places.  They are constantly "upgrading" to new houses and new cars but they are never satisfied.  When they aren't feeling high anymore from all the status symbols they have acquired, there's always more shopping that they can do - but I don't think that it helps.

A friend of mine hasn't exercised since high school.  She isn't fat but she is frail.  All day she stares into a computer screen and types and she whines about back pain and arm pain and wrist pain.  She is always going to the doctor and even though she is only forty-five she carries around a large rectangular pillbox with sections and labels which remind her which cocktail of medications she should take at what time to alleviate her heart problems, her stomach problems, her intestine problems etc. I tell her, "Instead of taking all that medicine, why don't you go out regularly for a walk?  Take up some gentle exercise like Tai Chi (or Tango)?" but she complains that she never has time.  As far as I know, all she does after leaving work is go straight home and sit in front of the TV for hours.

"See, Man Yung?  Wouldn't all their lives improve if they danced Tango?  People who are stressed  will feel more relaxed.  People who are obsessively materialistic would gain a better perspective on their lives.  Lonely people will get to meet others and feel the warmth of the embrace.  And my friend would finally get some exercise and heal that body that has been disintegrating from disuse!" 

"Ah, Irene, the world would be a better place if everyone danced Tango - that is, everyone except you!  Your reluctance to dance nothing but boring traditional steps is holding me back from achieving Tango superstardom.  I want to do triple spinning leaping back-kicking colgada enganche ganchos!*  Now we never do anything but WALK, and I want to fly! Look at how GREAT we were in 2006.  Waaaaaaaaaaah!"

* "Hey Man Yung, if you were doing your triple spinning leaping back-kicking colgada enganche ganchos, maybe YOUR world would be a better place - but it would be the APOCALYPSE for the dance floor!"

Friday, September 6, 2013


We went to have dim sum with a friend today.  Within minutes of sitting down, two acquaintances of Man Yung also showed up at the same restaurant and came over to say hello.  One even sat down to chat with Man Yung - AND REFUSED TO LEAVE, even though our friend and I are hinting strongly "GO AWAY!" - like trying to order food with the waitress, looking bored and checking our email on our smartphones, giving him the evil eye, etc.  FORTY-FIVE MINUTES later the guy finally leaves to join his wife who had been waiting completely alone at their table with a huge black cloud emitting thunderbolts over her head. 

"Can I help it that my conversation is so interesting and amusing?" said Man Yung when we complained to him that he didn't do anything to get rid of the guy.

When we left the restaurant we bumped into another acquaintance of Man Yung.   We quickly whisked Man Yung away before he could be engaged in another witty conversation.


We went to Koreatown to buy some chinese herbs.  We found a store in Koreatown last month selling better quality and cheaper medicinal herbs than those we have found in Chinese stores.

We go straight to the store that we went to before - and got large quantities of Cassia Seeds (good for eyesight and to reduce Yang energy), Wu Jia Pi (increase energy and strengthen joints) and Magnoliavine berries (also good for eyesight and to strengthen heart, lungs and kidneys) at very reasonable prices.  We decided to walk around Koreatown to see if there were more stores selling herbs. We drive by once or twice a week after going to a milonga and it always seems that there are lots of herbalist and health stores in Koreatown that we haven't checked out yet.

We look up and down, and discovered that the six other stores in Koreatown were all "Natural Health Food" stores selling pills promising to heal every kind of ailment known or unknown to humankind.   Strange how the first herbalist store we ever stepped foot in in Koreatown and the store right next door to it were the only two selling herbs in the whole of Koreatown... and the rest were all selling snake oil.  We are lucky that in many areas of our lives, even in relatively unimportant ones like this, we end up straight to the point and not in some kind of runaround!


During our evening walk in the park, we heard the Canada Geese flapping in the pond and honking at each other.  One goose would give the "Let's fly this way!" command... and then another goose on the other side would give the "Let's fly that way!" command... and then the first goose would look pissed and honk louder, and then the whole gaggle of geese would look confused.  A few geese would start to take off, but they would stop, and a few others would try to take off, but the lack of coordination meant that all of them stayed put.

"See, see!" said Man Yung.  "It's just like Tango, you have to have ONE PERSON to give the command and all the others* have to FOLLOW.  It is NOT a DEMOCRACY.  If everyone is trying to lead at the same time the dancing won't get anywhere!"

* Meaning "Irene".

"Can't I just say my opinion? I just want to be heard!" I said.

"No!"  said Man Yung.

"OK then, I will follow...for now.  But by my body language and my aggressive auto-adornation you will know that I secretly resent the dictatorship of Chairman Mao.  One day by golly you will have a revolt on your hands!"**

** Your socks will all have "mysterious" holes in them, your coffee will taste salty instead of sweet, your steak will totally be overcooked, all your favourite CDs would "disappear", you won't be able to find your towel when you emerge dripping wet from the shower..... Mwwwwwaaahahahahaha!!!!


Osvaldo and Coca are in Italy on a five week tour!  Many many videos have been posted of their performances on Youtube.  We talked to them before they left on their tour and they were very excited even though as they are getting older it gets more difficult for them to travel.   They have always enjoyed the warm welcome of their hosts and students in Italy and were looking forward to seeing all those familiar friendly and enthusiastic faces in Italy again.   No doubt they are having a very good time!

Here's one of their magnificent performances - dancing to D'Arienzo's "Color Cielo":

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