[Image: Four dumplings arranged in a bamboo steamer basket. The skins of the dumplings are translucent, showing the orange-pink colour of the prawns inside. Each dumpling is sealed with several pleats.]
Har gao (蝦餃) are perhaps one of the most iconic dim sum items, so they seem a fitting thing to start off my month of dim sum. The Chinese characters simply mean "prawn dumpling" — 蝦 is "prawn", while 餃 is "dumpling". However, it's understood that this is a particular type of prawn dumpling, with a translucent wrapper made from wheat starch, sealed with several neat pleats and thin enough to show off the colour of the prawns inside.
The pronunciations of 蝦 and 餃 in Mandarin are "xiā" and "jiǎo" respectively, but as I've mentioned before, dim sum is a Cantonese tradition and so in English-speaking countries the dishes are usually referred to by their Cantonese names. Hence: har gao (or har gow, har gau, har kau, ha gao, ha gow, etc, depending on your preferred transliteration). I will be giving the pinyin for all the characters I mention this month, though, for consistency with the rest of my posts.
I've seen har gao listed on menus both simply as 蝦餃 and with more elaborate names. 鮮蝦餃 (xiān xiā jiǎo) is one; 鮮 (xiān) means "fresh", a characteristic you definitely want to find in connection with the prawns inside these dumplings.
晶 (jīng), which means "crystal" or "clear", is another salient characteristic, in this case associated with the translucency of the dumpling skins. It often appears in combination with 瑩 (yìng), meaning "bright" or "lustrous", giving names such as 晶瑩鮮蝦餃 (jīng yìng xiān xiā jiǎo) or 晶瑩蝦餃 (jīng yìng xiā jiǎo).
Finally, you may see reference to the bamboo shoots (筍尖/sǔn jiān) which often form part of the filling: 筍尖鮮蝦餃 (sǔn jiān xiān xiā jiǎo) or 筍尖蝦餃 (sǔn jiān xiā jiǎo).
There are basically two types of har gao that I've come across — the proper type, pictured above, which are wrapped and pleated by hand, and the other type, which are made in some kind of dumpling press with wobbly lines to suggest the folds (see the bottom left hand corner of this photo). This latter type tend to turn up in restaurants that have a small dim sum section on the menu but don't actually specialise in dim sum, and are best avoided — see my dim sum overview for more on this.
Although har gao are perhaps the epitome of dim sum — according to the Discover China documentary Dim Sum Odyssey, there's a saying in the trade that translates as "See how good a chef is, watch how he makes har gao" — I was very pleased to find that it's actually possible to make a decent rendition at home. The ones I made the other week were at least as good as the frozen ones I've bought before, even though it was my first time of making them.
I followed Sunflower's recipe and it was pretty straightforward — much easier than I'd been expecting! The dough for the wrappers held together very well while I was making them; it was easy to knead, and very easy to flatten out into circles (possibly too easy — it got thinner than I was comfortable with at some points). It's worth noting that I found it easier to use the heel of my hand for the flattening out than to use a rolling pin, though it might have been better with a small Chinese rolling pin than with my gigantic British one.
The only thing I was unsure of was the steaming time. Sunflower said to steam them for 4 minutes, while other sources give times of up to 15 minutes. I experimented a bit, and 7-8 minutes seemed to be the sweet spot for me. I suspect the thickness of the wrappers has an effect here; I'll try for thinner wrappers next time as my filling got a little overcooked in the time it took to cook the wrappers through. The filling was also a bit fally-aparty — I'll try marinading the prawns with a little egg white next time.
One thing I learned during this is that it's not a good idea to try to lift the har gao directly after the steaming is finished — the skins will be fragile. They firm up after a minute or so. Serve them in the basket like the restaurants do :)
I also froze some uncooked ones and steamed them a couple of days later for 14 minutes from frozen — this worked fine.