INNOVATION VERSUS TRADITION
A TALE OF TWO HARGOWS
By Sophia Hsu
Photos by Amit Chaffee
Abasic building block of any traditional dim sum menu is the plump, nearly translucent, steamed shrimp dumpling, also seen as hargow, hagow, xiajiao, crystal shrimp dumpling, prawn dumplings, or shrimp bonnet. A thin and nearly see-through skin made from a combination of wheat starch and tapioca starch is wrapped around a luscious filling of shrimp paste mixed with roughly chopped shrimp and seasonings, which could include but are not limited to pork fat (lard), bamboo shoots, scallions, cornstarch, sesame oil, soy sauce, and sugar. These are the basic elements from which dim sum chefs rarely deviate. Many dim sum chefs are measured and judged by their deft with a shrimp dumpling. The skin should be as thin and translucent as possible without letting loose its perfectly poppable, delicate filling when picked up with chopsticks. Each dumpling should release from the steaming paper/cloth and tray cleanly without sticking to the other dumplings. The filling should be cooked through remaining plump and juicy without becoming overcooked. The size of the hargow should be generous with filling and easy to consume in one big bite both to prevent a messy scene in public and to get a balance of skin to filling as you chew. Should any hargow not meet these standards, most traditionalists would eschew the dim sum restaurant altogether.
Chef Chris Cheung of East Wind Snack Shop has been a traditionalist when it comes to dim sum. He grew up frequenting the small teahouses and coffee shops of Manhattan’s Chinatown. His uncle even owned one of those teahouses. These teahouses were a modern interpretation of the stops along the ancient Silk Road where traders and travelers would rest and restore themselves with tea, a tradition called yumcha or yincha – literally “drink tea”. Small plates of food were introduced later on when tea was discovered to aid in digestion, dispelling the myth that eating food with tea would cause one to gain enormous amounts of weight. One of Chef Cheung’s clearest memories was popping into a teahouse on the way home, pointing at the buns and dim sum (snacks) behind glass, and taking them home to share with the family. These teahouses are long gone from Chinatown, but the taste and texture of those hargow still remain in the large dim sum restaurants across the city.
When he began testing out new dishes to add to East Wind Snack Shop’s menu, he wanted to bring back the flavors of those now defunct teahouses with those chewy, plump hargow. The wheat starch wrapper provided a gluten-free option on the menu, but he still wanted it to stand out, so he experimented with texture. First, he tackled the filling texture perfecting the proportion of paste to chunks of shrimp. Then, came the texture of the wrapper, finding his balance between thin and strong. The last texture to tackle was the method of cooking. Nearly every dim sum parlor keeps their hargow three to a bamboo steamer tray piled high on metal carts carrying steam-braised chicken feet, shumai, stuffed tofu, and more. Steaming gives the hargow a soft, slippery outside and a firm juicy filling. What Chef Cheung has done has added depth to the hargow by pan-frying the dumpling and attaching a lattice crust. These two moves take the hargow up to an entirely new level by augmenting the slippery wrapper that we all know and love with a toasted nuttiness and crunch rarely found in traditional dim sum dishes. Stop by either of the East Wind Snack Shop locations (Williamsburg or Ditmas Park) to try Chef Cheung’s crispy hargow.