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?


Martha said...

Wow! I just learned a lot about dim sum thanks to Man Yung. Good lesson! Now I'm hungry :), I wonder what's a good place in downtown TO to have some dim sum, or in East China town.

pbird said...

I still like the old Sun Ya in Seattle. We always end up choosing too much, but you can hardly help it.

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