Discover the Delights of Har Gow

Meticulously crafted Cantonese crystal shrimp dumplings are one of the great joys of a dim sum feast. To truly appreciate their gifts, make them at home.

Published Dec. 5, 2022.

A semisheer wrapper allows a hazy glimpse of the blush-pink mixture that rests inside. Its tacky surface clings lightly to the bamboo steamer and your chopsticks, momentarily prolonging the anticipation. Then you pop it in your mouth: At first, the dumpling resists your chew, but it soon gives way, baring a pristine, delicately sweet, juicy shrimp filling. This is har gow, a “small, small bite,” per Sarah Leung, writer for the authoritative The Woks of Life blog, who classifies each dumpling as “its own experience” with “its own interplay of texture and taste.” On a video call, Leung went so far as to say that the one-bite treasures are “emblematic of dim sum.” 

There is a very pure, delicious sort of shrimp explosion in the dumpling.
Sarah Leung, blogger, The Woks of Life

That’s quite a designation, as dim sum houses are known for a wide variety of delicious offerings—as well as a bustling social scene. When I spoke to Chris Cheung, chef/owner of Brooklyn’s East Wind Snack Shop and author of Damn Good Chinese Food (2021), he described Sunday morning dim sum as “one big party,” that is “very happy, very high energy.”

Here, I’ve channeled that excitement into my own recipe for har gow. For the sake of convenience and to ensure consistent results, my approach deviates slightly from tradition. I hope that these small changes make it easy for anyone to embrace the challenge and experience the pleasure that comes from making these dumplings at home.

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That’s a Wrap

Har gow’s unique qualities start with the wrapper, made with the duo of wheat starch and tapioca starch. The former is derived from wheat flour that’s been processed to remove gluten-forming proteins; it provides soft, tender structure. Powdery tapioca starch, extracted from cassava and high in amylopectin, lends silky resilience. 

Key Ingredients: Wheat Starch and Tapioca Starch

Wheat starch, which contains minimal gluten, gives the wrappers soft, tender structure. Tapioca starch, which is high in amylopectin, provides extensibility and light chew. 

Dim sum chefs make har gow dough by slowly stirring boiling water (and then melted lard) into the starches. As the mixture cools, the starches gel, creating a dough that will hold its shape when stretched. With practice, chefs learn when to stop adding water and how long to knead to evenly disperse the gelled starch. 

For novices, using a food processor turned out to be the best way to ensure consistency from batch to batch. I added all of the boiling water at once and gave the starches 5 seconds to gel before drizzling in lard and whizzing the mixture into a ball. 

Dim Sum Memories

“Dim sum” means “touch the heart.” It’s a fitting definition, as the brunch tradition is so much more than a meal. It’s a time for conversation, being together, and enjoying rituals. At the leisurely weekend feasts that were a fixture of my childhood, my father would request a pot of chrysanthemum tea from the vest-clad server as soon as we sat down. While my mother filled our porcelain cups, sending up softly floral steam, he scanned the loaded carts as they wove through the crowded room, noisy with the clatter of metal steamer baskets. My sister and I delighted in watching the server stamp our tab each time Dad made a new selection; when the treat landed on the giant lazy Susan, he tapped the table in a silent signal of thanks. If more tea was needed, my mom flipped over the lid of the pot to request a refill. As we laughed, debated, and caught up, we practiced the finer points of using chopsticks on all of our favorites—deep-fried taro puffs, griddled turnip cakes, braised chicken feet, steamed greens, egg custard tarts, soft tofu with ginger syrup, and of course, har gow.

Filling in the Details

Har gow filling is a master class in spotlighting a single ingredient to deliver, as Leung put it, “a very pure, delicious sort of shrimp explosion.” Traditionally, the crustaceans are soaked in salt water, chopped, and vigorously hand mixed with Shaoxing wine, ginger, garlic, white pepper, salt, sugar, and MSG (or soy sauce). The brine seasons the shrimp, helps it retain moisture, and aids in the release of myosin (a protein that binds water and fat) during stirring, producing post-cooking resilience and juiciness. Minced bamboo shoots or water chestnuts offer crunch, and fat back, bacon fat, oil, or lard (my choice since I used it in the dough), injects the lean mixture with richness. 

I’d already used the food processor to process the dough, and aside from speed and convenience, there were a couple of reasons to deploy it on the filling as well. One was that finely ground shrimp was easier to veil in the thin wrapper. The other was that the whirring blade efficiently extracted myosin. In fact, it worked so well that pretreating the shrimp with salt was unnecessary. 

Taking Shape

Unlike other dumpling doughs, har gow dough is not rolled with a rolling pin. Instead, chefs deftly smear small pieces with a wide cleaver, using a slight arcing motion to create wafer-thin circles. For those who aren’t adept, in The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (1999) award-winning author Grace Young suggests using a tortilla press. It ended up being my go-to tool.

Shaping the Dumplings

The more you practice making har gow, the more dextrous you will become. 

To create first pleat, use your thumb and index finger to pinch dough.

Use index finger of your other hand to push dough to begin second pleat.

Position second pleat against first pleat.

Repeat, rotating with each pleat, until dumpling has rounded shape.

Press pleats above filling to seal.

Gently tear off excess dough.

While there isn’t a universal shape for har gow, I prefer a purse form that flaunts pleats across the top. A tidy arrangement and a generous number of pleats are signs of mastery, and it takes practice. Cheung is more than proficient but claimed, “I’m still learning, perfecting. Every time I make these dumplings I find another nugget of wisdom, that extra nuanced edge, that makes them better.” My early efforts produced four or five pleats, but after a while, I could form eight. To finish the shape, I followed the common process of gently tugging off excess dough with my fingers.

Cook the dumplings in a bamboo steamer and then it’s time to eat: Drag the plump morsels through a smidgen of chili oil, or do as Cheung does, and go straight “from [steamer] basket to mouth.” 

Har Gow (Crystal Shrimp Dumplings)

Meticulously crafted Cantonese crystal shrimp dumplings are one of the great joys of a dim sum feast. To truly appreciate their gifts, make them at home.
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