I usually order 3 dishes to gauge if a yum cha* restaurant is considered authentic. They are:
- har gau (steam prawn dumplings),
- siu mai (steam pork and prawn dumplings or ‘dim sims’), and
- cheong fun (steam rice noodle rolls)
They are arguably the classics of yum cha. You can forget about the restaurants that do not serve any of the above.
*As yum cha is a Southern Chinese cuisine from the Canton region including Hong Kong, all names mentioned here are in the Cantonese dialect. The term literally means ‘drink tea’, but it’s actually more appropriate to say ‘the act of having dim sums with tea’. Dim Sums are the little parcels of delight usually served in steaming hot bamboo baskets. You have dim sums during yum cha.
Har gau is infamously delicious. Starch and prawn in the hands of a skilled chef will transform into delicate dumplings that fill your mouth with awesome flavours.
The presentation usually consists of four dumplings in a bamboo steamer. All four must face ‘outward’ and diagonally positioned, with the sealed part facing out. The skin is translucent so that the prawn filling is partly visible. The outer layer is pleated. Gorgeous folds add an interesting pattern and create a springy texture synonymous with prawn dumplings. The generously rounded shape makes the dumplings shell-like pouches.
The art of eating har gau, as with most dim sums, is to have them warm. Tastefulness reduces with temperature, so don’t leave them out for too long. Do not tuck in immediately if they are fresh from the steamer either. You’ll burn your tongue and you won’t enjoy them.
When you bite into the dumplings, the skin should be slightly springy but quickly unravelled to let the moist prawn fillings take over. It’s definitely a layer upon layer of flavour. Texture-wise there should be a perfect balance of stickiness, chewiness and softness. Prawns used to make the filling should be as fresh as possible.
You can easily see signs of an unskilled chef when the dumplings’ skin breaks apart when you pick them up with chopsticks. Other signs include inconsistent dumpling sizes, dumplings sticking to the side of the bamboo steamer and skins that are too chewy or thick. The fillings are equally important. Generous proportion is a must. Overcooking them is akin to blasphemy.
The skins are made of tapioca starch and wheat starch. The fillings, aside from prawn, should include pork lard that makes the dumpling moist.
Har gau pairs well with chilli oil and is usually eaten with Siu Mai, the topic of my upcoming Yum Cha piece.
A final note on beverage. When yum cha-ing, have Chinese Tea. No soft drinks, beer or juices. The common variety includes Bou Lei, Tit Kun Yam, Sau Mei and the most popular Guk Bou or Jasmine Tea. Tea imparts a very subtle fragant bitter flavour. It clears the taste of the previous course and reduce the richness of some dishes, especially the deep fried ones.