Thursday, October 28, 2010

Har Gau: Chinese Shrimp Dumplings


My first adventure in making dim sum dumplings turned out to be a great success.  Riding the momentum of a successful batch of siu mai, har gau was the next natural option for my exploration into making dim sum.  Har gau and siu mai are dim sum staples and two peas in a pod.  In fact, if you go to a dim sum restaurant that serves out of carts, the cart pusher that has har gau and siu mai will typically announce “har gau siu mai” in one slurred breath.


Dim sum at a restaurant can be great, but it can’t replace the fond memories of my grandma waking up before dawn to hand make a huge spread of dim sum whenever we visited.  My sister’s favorite thing were what we affectionately called “happy faces”.  Essentially, “happy faces” were dumplings filled with ground pork and green onion and named so because they looked like a smile when constructed.  The scratch-made wrappers were most likely made from wheat flour and are essentially the same translucent wrappers used for har gau.  Knowing how well my grandma made those wrappers, I had a lot to live to up.


Because I’m still very new to working with dough in general, the wrappers refused to roll out to my desired thinness.  Every time I would try rolling a piece out, it would quickly shrink back to where it started from.  My inexperience made the wrappers turn out highly questionable and sadly didn’t come remotely close to what my grandma used to make.


Typically the filling has no visible signs of soy sauce but mine obviously did.  Either most restaurants don’t use soy sauce in the filling or use so little that you can’t see it.  The dumplings are also supposed to have nicely pleated seams to seal them.  My “nicely pleated seams” were more like crudely smashed together dough.


As you can see, the wrapper turned out too thick.  The wrapper should be translucent.  Overall, it was a passable dumpling wrapper but a terrible har gau wrapper.  The flavor of the dumpling, though, turned out well, albeit a little too soy sauce-y.  One of the hallmarks of great har gau is the clean shrimp flavor that comes through in each bite and this was somewhat muddled with my heavy hand for soy sauce.

Just like the siu mai, I forgot to write down the ratios and technique when I made the har gau.  These measurements are essentially a best guess based on rummaging through Google search results.

Har gau wrapper:

  1. 250 g (~1 c) water +16 g (~1.25 T) lard => bring to boil
  2. 170 g (~1.33 c) wheat flour + 20 g (~3 T) corn starch => bowl
  3. Step #1 + step #2 => mix
  4. Step #3 => wait until cool enough to handle, knead until smooth
  5. Step #4 => divide into 24 equal portions, roll out into 4” diameter circles

Har gau filling:

  1. 1 green onion => fine chop
  2. 1” piece of ginger => grate or mince
  3. 2 t soy sauce + 1 t sesame oil + 6 g (~1 t) salt + 4 g (~1 t) sugar + 7 g (~1 T) corn starch => mix, dissolve
  4. 500 g (~1 lbs) shrimp + 45 g (~0.1 lbs) pork fat + steps #1-3 => mix

Har gau:

  1. 1 t filling + 1 wrapper => center filling, moisten 1/2 wrapper edge
  2. Dry wrapper edge + moist wrapper edge => seal, pleat
  3. Step #2 => parchment, steam, 6-8 minutes

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Siu Mai: Chinese Pork Dumplings


The first words in Chinese that I ever learned were most likely “har gau” and “siu mai.”  Whenever my family would go out for dim sum, there were always a few guarantees: jasmine tea, har gau, and siu mai would all be ordered.  Har gau and shiu mai are probably the 2 most popular dim sum items with most families, but they can easily be botched.

Bad shiu mai is typically rubbery and contains a lot of filler like fat and cornstarch.  Sadly, I’ve never had a memorable siu mai in Chicago; well, memorable for the right reason.  I certainly remember having terrible siu mai in Chicago and the dim sum here just doesn’t compare to Southern California or even Houston.

In fact, I had the worst dim sum of my life (and worst meal in recent memory) at the highly regarded Little Three Happiness restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown.  It’s held in such high esteem that a popular Chicago internet food forum was named after it.  How that place is still in business and why people like it is beyond me, and the online community’s recommendation of it has made me distrustful of most ethnic restaurant recommendations in general.


Good siu mai in my book tends to have a decent amount of fresh shrimp per dumpling rather than just a tiny amount.  Even though it’s a pork dumpling, I enjoy the presence of shrimp as it plays well with the inherent porky fattiness of each bite.  There’s a good reason why many Asian cultures have traditional dishes rooted with a pork and shrimp combination: it just works.  Some people also top their shiu mai with a pea and/or some diced carrots for color which I opted out of due to laziness and because it doesn’t add much flavor.


Traditionally, the outer skin is made from a lye-water dough.  However, I chose to go with premade wonton wrappers as I was confident I would totally mess the skin up if I made it from scratch.  Construction was a bit troublesome at times as some dumplings started to lose their shape, droop, and spill out of the wrapper.


Afraid that the wrappers would stick to the bamboo, I placed some all-mighty parchment paper down for the dumplings to rest on.


Like I said, I tend to prefer a decent amount of shrimp in siu mai, but this particular one had a bit much.  The entire top half of the dumpling was all shrimp.  It was still really good, though.  Unfortunately, I’m not 100% sure about the following ratios because I forgot to write down the recipe I followed.  As long as you generally have the base ingredients, it’ll turn out fine.  Just taste and tweak as you go and change the ratios to your preference.

Siu mai:

  1. 1” piece ginger => mince
  2. 1 green onion => dice
  3. Shiitake mushrooms => dice
  4. 1 Tbsp soy sauce + 1 Tbsp oyster sauce + 1 tsp sesame oil + 1 tsp Chinese rice wine + 2 tsp sugar + 1 tsp cornstarch + salt => mix
  5. 450 g ground pork + 225 g shrimp + steps #1-4 => mix
  6. Won ton wrappers => fill with step #5
  7. Siu mai => steam until done, ~10-15 minutes

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Banh Mi-tyballs: Day 2


On Friday, October 15, the day finally came to debut the Banh Mi-tyball sandwich to the public, and I had the good fortune of being able to help prep, construct, and sell the sandwiches that day.

“Too long; didn’t read” Version of Day 2

  • I had a lot of fun, learned some new things, and would gladly do it again given the opportunity.
  • I was really excited to have people try something I had a hand in making.
  • I learned that the person on this jar of chili is a woman and it says “old dry mom” on it.
  • Most customers were freaked out by fish sauce and didn’t know what it was.
  • I refrained from taking many pictures because everyone around me was focused and working hard.  The least I could do was try to stay as focused and work as hard as they did.
  • Food truck laws in Chicago are insanely stupid and need to be revised.
  • Phillip Foss wakes up really, really early, is very focused, and maintains a high level of attention to detail in his humble yet refined sandwiches.

6:10 AM

Foss and I arrive bright and early in the kitchen, and the first things that need to get done are mise en place and bringing the meatballs up to temperature.  He stresses the importance of mise en place and that we must remember to “clean, clean, clean as we go.”  This was the first sense I got of how focused Foss is in the kitchen, no matter if it’s a kitchen putting out haute cuisine or if it’s a kitchen putting out meatball sandwiches to be served out of a truck.


6:30 AM

Many restaurant kitchens will have a pot of stock going throughout the day.  This kitchen is no different.  We haul a large stockpot filled with bones onto the stove, fill it with water, and get it started.  By the end of the truck run, we’ll have a good amount of stock that is so vital and essential to cooking good food.

6:50 AM

The bread delivery arrives, I believe from Labriola Baking Company, and Foss takes inventory.  There seems to be less bread than he was expecting, but thankfully we have enough for the day.  I make some coffee for the both of us and clearly hear Foss tell me that 1 scoop of instant coffee will do as I pathetically have never made instant coffee in my entire life up until that point.

Despite this, the early morning haze that I’m still partially in affects my judgment and I put 1 heaping scoop of instant coffee into each cup and the coffee is obviously too strong for even the most hardcore coffee drinker.  Perhaps this screw up isn’t that big of a deal, but I tell myself to focus and try to draw from Foss’s precise movements around the kitchen and deliberate instructions he’s given me so far.


7:00 AM

I’m tasked with cutting the edges off of the bread; the excess is to be used for croutons.  After a simple demo from Foss, I get slicing and quickly realize how awesome an offset serrated knife is.  A few minutes later, Foss checks on me and notices that some of my cuts aren’t perfectly straight and advises me to line up the bread properly before cutting so it looks nice.  He reminds me that each piece of bread is handmade and thus each piece is different and needs to be handled differently from one piece to the next.

This is the first, and definitely not last, time that I notice Foss’s attention and dedication to detail.  Not only would a lazier person not bother trimming the bread, but a less dedicated person  wouldn’t even bother making sure each piece of bread was trimmed perfectly straight.


7:25 AM

I finish trimming all the bread and at this point I’m not sure how many I’ve trimmed, but it’s enough to fill the bin above at least 3 times (maybe a lot more) from what I recall.  Clearly not the speediest, but I felt a decent sense of accomplishment.

My next task is to measure out ingredients for Foss’s BBQ sauce.  I spend what seems like an eternity looking for rice wine vinegar only to realize that the “r. wine vinegar” in the recipe stands for red wine vinegar which there an abundance of.

7:35 AM

We go outside to move the truck into position and get the hot box, for lack of better term, fired up to ensure that it’s warm enough by the time the sandwiches are loaded up.

7:45 AM

Foss assigns me the task of coating a sheet tray full of chocolate balls with melted chocolate and adding a couple grains of salt to make chocolate salty balls.  He demonstrates how to do this: put 4 balls into the bowl of chocolate, coat, lift all 4 with spoon, salt, and use tongs to put the balls back onto the sheet tray one by one.

I confirm to Foss that I understand what to do, but apparently the super strong coffee that I mistakenly made earlier does little to sharpen my cognition.  On my first try, I screw up.  Somehow I completely forget that I have tongs at my disposal in order to place the coated balls back onto the sheet tray and instead use my hand.  I proceed with the second round of balls, only to come to the deflating realization that I can’t grab a pinch of salt without ruining the entire container of salt with my chocolate-covered fingers.

Bewildered and flustered, I can’t comprehend how I even got into this predicament.  I call Foss over and ask what I did wrong, and as soon as he picks up the tongs, I know.  After a few rounds, I get the hang of it and the rest of the balls get coated and salted without much fuss.

only_pic_of_choco_salty_balls_i_could_find_on_the_internet_from_@ChicagoFishGuy(Photo by @ChicagoFishGuy)

8:05 AM

Foss opens the oven and pulls out a pan filled with super tender pork shoulder that’s been slowly braising overnight and gets me started on harvesting and shredding the meat for his BBQ balls.  This is something I’ve done before, and I’ve even harvested meat from a pig’s head on a couple of occasions, so I tell myself that I can’t possibly screw this up.

After the meat is harvested, Foss shows me how he adds smoke to the meat using a smoking gun from PolyScience.  It’s pretty cool, and the process will repeat a few times throughout the day until the meat attains just the right amount of smokiness.  This is yet another moment where I’m impressed with Foss’s attention to detail.  He could easily skip the smoke and most people wouldn’t care, but his drive to put out a quality product is again very apparent here.

9:00 AM

Nine AM.  Yes, nine o’clock in the morning is how early we start constructing sandwiches in order to have the day’s allotment ready to go by 10:45 AM.  The fact that Chicago laws prohibit the selling of anything but prepackaged food from a food truck is simply ludicrous and it’s the reason why we’re in a kitchen making sandwiches so early and not on a truck doing prep and constructing the sandwiches to order.

What’s equally crazy is how Foss is able to maintain a high level of quality despite the fact that the sandwiches must be constructed ahead of time and not as customers order.  There’s no doubt that the Meatyballs Mobile could serve up an even better product if the food truck laws in Chicago were revised.  Every other major metropolitan city has sensible food truck laws that allow for preparation of food on the actual food truck.  Why Chicago, arguably one of the best gastronomic hubs in the country, is so strict about food trucks makes little sense in the year 2010.

9:05 AM

The first thing that must be done during the sandwich construction process is to toast the bread, another little thing that Foss does that improves the overall quality of the final product.  We construct my Banh Mi-tyballs sandwiches first, and I remind him that I’d like the meatballs caramelized and he gladly obliges.  We debate about whether it would be best to put them on the flattop, in a pan, or straight onto the grill.  Ultimately, we choose the grill, which happens to be the traditional way of preparing Vietnamese meatballs.

I get to helm the grill and try to learn its hot and cool spots as quickly as I can.  Some meatballs aren’t caramelizing as fast as I hoped they would and I become slightly afraid of falling behind schedule.  The bread has been toasted, the pickled vegetables have gone down, and we’re now waiting for the meatballs to caramelize before topping the sandwich with aioli and cilantro.

However, Foss’s dedication to quality reassures me as he says that if we have to wait for the meatballs to get a good amount of caramelization on them, then we’ll wait.  Right before the last Banh Mi-tyball sandwich is wrapped, we go outside for a photo op of me with my sandwich next to the truck.


9:45 AM

As we construct the other Meatyball sandwiches, I again notice Foss’s keen eye for detail.  His crab meatballs, affectionately named “crabby balls,” are ever so slightly flattened on one side.  I don’t notice this at first, and place a few crabby balls flat-side-up.  Foss quickly sees this and again reminds me that we want these sandwiches to look nice, and I correct my error.  Throughout the entire day, attention to little details like this surely add up and amount to a better end product.

10:20 AM

Sandwich construction is nearing completion I hear a strange man in the kitchen inquiring about the sandwiches.  At first, I honestly think the man is a homeless man who wandered in looking for a free bite to eat as his speech is somewhat slurred and hard to comprehend.  It’s not until I’m able to take my eyes off of garnishing sandwiches that I realize that he’s simply delivering something to the kitchen and English is not has native language.  The deliveryman seems fairly excited about the sandwiches and happily buys one.

After all the sandwiches are constructed, we take a few seconds to grab some scraps of bread and sop up some Meatyball cheese sauce to get us fueled up before heading out.

10:50 AM

A few minutes behind schedule, we’re finally packed up and ready to head out to the Loop.


11:15 AM

After a slight hindrance with the parking, we land at Monroe & Wells.  There’s already one customer waiting for us to open the hatch and dish out Meatyball sandwiches.  Foss gets to writing a description of the Banh Mi-tyball on his whiteboard.  Unfortunately, the inclusion of “fish sauce” in the description scares people away from my sandwich throughout the entire day.  Most customers have never tried fish sauce and automatically assume it will give the sandwich an off-putting fishy taste, which is completely wrong.

Shortly after, one of my friends stops by and is our second customer of the day.  He hangs around until our former coworkers show up.  Until then, we get a few customers here and there.  As Foss is taking orders, I open up the paper bags and get them ready for him but he’s not used to having help with this menial task.  It takes him a few customers before he can refrain from instinctively going for an unopened bag and instead grabbing the bag that I have prepared for him.

11:35 AM

About a dozen of my former coworkers show up for sandwiches, but sadly only 2 of them get the Banh Mi-tyball sandwich.  The rest are frightened by the fish sauce.  I feel somewhat disappointed and can only hope that other customers don’t feel the same way about fish sauce.

11:45 AM

One of my former coworker’s husband shows up and it’s a nice surprise.  We talk for a few minutes and I notice that the line has grown pretty long as business has started to pick up.  We’ve been talking outside the vicinity of the line, and I’d feel really bad if he ended up going to the end of the line because it was fairly short when he got there.

Up until now, Foss has been handling all the orders.  I ask him if we can get Greg squared away with his order, but Foss is being swamped with customers and is too busy to respond.  After a couple more inquiries, Foss tells me that I can handle the sale myself.  Feeling empowered, I grab 2 Banh Mi-tyball sandwiches, make change, and Greg is on his merry way.


12:00 PM

At this point, I’ve handled a few sales and explained my sandwich to curious customers.  Despite the fact that many people are turned off by the fish sauce, my sandwich seems to be selling well, along with all the other sandwiches.

Then, a customer comes up to me and mentions that she’s read my blog and has an interesting piece of information for me: the person on this jar of chili is an old woman!  The kind customer ends a debate that I’ve had with my family for at least a couple years: whether the person on the jar is a man or a woman.  She explains to me that the text on the jar translates literally to “old dry mom.”  I can’t stop beaming with glee about the fact that I finally learned who the person on the jar is and about the fact that someone actually read my rant about it.

12:10 PM

We’re sold out.  A journalism student approaches Foss about filming his thoughts on the absurd food truck laws in Chicago, to which he happily agrees.

12:45 PM

Foss finishes filming and we head back to the kitchen.  Having only had time for a piece of bread slathered with sauce for nourishment earlier in the day, I break out a snack that I packed just in case I got hungry: Vietnamese yuca cake.  I offer some to Foss and to my delight he responds “mmm…good.”

1:00 PM

The stock that’s been going since the morning gets strained and the pork shoulder for the BBQ balls gets another round of smoke.  We taste some, and the amount of smoke is almost getting to just the right level.  I hang around the kitchen for a little while longer, but head out before any heavy congestion builds on the roads.

All in all, the day turns out to be a great experience.  I had fun, learned, and hopefully made some people happy with my Banh Mi-tyballs.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Banh Mi-tyballs: Day 1


I first met Phillip Foss, former chef of Lockwood at the historic Palmer House Hilton, at Sarkis’ in Evanston.  For a couple nights at the end of September, he took over the cafe to showcase his Meatyballs concept (@FossFoodTrucks) in the guise of a pop-up restaurant.  My first impression of his refined meatball sandwiches was positive.  I was impressed by the moisture and delicateness of the meatballs as well as his Thai-inspired sauce that was served with turkey meatballs.  The freshly fried truffle dusted chips and chocolate salty balls were also memorable.

The following week, Foss ran Meatyball deliveries as his food truck was out of commission.  Luckily for my coworkers and me, he delivered to the Loop on the day we were all working in the West Loop.  After my second helping of his Meatyballs, Foss humbly asked for constructive criticism.  At that point, I had tried all but one of his sandwiches and gave a fairly detailed breakdown of each one and offered some suggestions for potential menu items.

Foss responded to my extremely verbose evaluation of his Meatyballs quite unexpectedly: he asked me if I’d like to come in and work on one of the sandwich ideas I suggested.  Of course, I was really excited and jumped at the opportunity to work him.  I would be the first guest to be featured on the Meatyballs Mobile, and the concept of crowdsourcing a menu item is a novel idea that can ultimately lead to a great connection between Foss and his customers.  For anyone interested in getting involved, email your Meatyball idea to thepickledtongue at gmail dot com.


The week before we got together, I made practice sandwiches and tested them on my coworkers.  Thankfully, they enjoyed the sandwich and gave me some good feedback.  That weekend, Foss and I got together at his kitchen to work on a banh mi inspired Meatyball sandwich that I’ve made in the past.  After a few iterations, we got the meatballs to our desired taste, consistency, and moisture level.

The meatballs were somewhat traditional in terms of ingredients (pork, fish sauce, sugar, salt), with a couple additions and a subtraction.  Foss added a couple ingredients to keep the meatballs moist, and I thought it would be a decent idea to take transfer the garlic from the meatball to an aioli.  I was hoping to get a little heat out of the raw garlic in order to replace the typically overwhelming raw seranos/jalapenos.  Traditional garnishes of pickled carrots/daikons in addition to cilantro rounded out the sandwich.

Throughout the entire process, I was surprised and thrilled by how it turned out to be a true collaboration rather than me writing down a few ratios for Foss and him implementing them as he saw fit.  He continuously sought my feedback after we tasted and tweaked something and reminded me that this was my sandwich.  After all our prep was done, we had about 100 Vietnamese meatballs ready for service, and I eagerly awaited Day 2 of my Meatyballs experience where I’d get the opportunity to help out with a day of service and ride along with the Meatyballs food truck.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cha Trung Hap: Vietnamese Steamed Egg Meatloaf


Whenever my family went out to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant, there were 2 things that I always had to have: cha gio (Vietnamese egg rolls) and cha trung hap (sort of like a steamed meatloaf comprised of mostly eggs and ground pork).  Typically, cha trung hap accompanies rice dishes, so my dad would order some rice dish with grilled meat and I’d steal his eggy/porky loaf.


One of my favorite things about cha trung hap is the use of wood ear fungus.  They’re easily found in their dried form in Asian markets and have a somewhat furry feel to them.  After reconstituting them in warm water, they become gelatinous but with a bit of crunch.  I liken them to the cartilage that’s found in a pig’s ear.  They taste pretty bland, but it’s all about the gelatinous and crunchy texture that it brings to the plate.


In addition to eggs, ground pork, and wood ear mushrooms, green onions and glass noodles or rice vermicelli are typically thrown into the mix.  I’ve seen variations that include shredded carrot and shrimp, so I opted to include some fresh shrimp for my loaf.  All the ingredients are mixed together and topped with a couple egg yolks to give it a yellow finish.  Many places do something to give the top an orange finish.  I’m not sure what of the cultural or culinary significance of an orange top versus a yellow one, but it’s fairly common.


As I mentioned before, cha trung hap is more often than not served as an accompaniment to something else.  In this case, I chose a simple roast pork marinated in fish sauce, lime, and sugar.  The loaf is usually garnished with cilantro, which brightens and lightens the dish.  It balances out the inherit richness that comes with something that’s so eggy.


Cha trung hap:

  1. 30 g dried wood ear fungus + 30 g (1 bundle) rice vermicelli + warm water => soak
  2. 20 minutes => drain => slice wood ear fungus into strips
  3. 2  stalks scallion + 3 eggs + 2 egg whites + 225 g shrimp + 450 g ground pork + 2 tsp fish sauce + 1 tsp sugar + 1/2 tsp pepper + step #1 => mix => cooking vessel
  4. 2 egg yolks => top layer of mixture
  5. Steam, medium heat => 25 minutes
  6. Cilantro => garnish