These Ruby Prawn Dumplings Combine Innovation with Tradition
The secret to London Cantonese restaurant Baozilnn's har gow dumplings is beetroot juice.
Photo by author.
There’s something about the dumpling that epitomises cosiness. Piercing the soft, stretchy dough makes me feel like it is I who is wrapped in a warm dough blanket, perpetually heated from within. Sometimes in the cold winter months, as I dine on steaming veggie wontons or hot boiled Sichuan dumplings swimming in chili oil and soy sauce, I wish I could climb inside amongst the tofu and mushroom filling and have a little nap.
BaoziInn, a dim sum restaurant specialising in Northern Chinese cuisine, is basically HQ for comforting dumplings. The restaurant first opened in London’s Chinatown in the early 2000s, but I’ve come to its new, semi-permanent stall in Market Hall Victoria, a newly launched food hall with a rich history of its own. Before hosting pop-up restaurants, the space has housed an Edwardian shopping arcade, a World War One canteen, and a nightclub.
The dumplings I'll be eating at Baozilnn aren’t your usual Cantonese har gow, a type of steamed dumpling filled with minced prawn. Despite his traditional training in Hong Kong where he learned to make dim sum at the age of 18, Law wanted to try a new dish when he opened BaoziInn. Which is why I am about to watch the chef turn his dumpling dough bright pink.
“Cantonese dumplings and har gow are quite common in Chinatown or in a dim sum restaurant,” Med Pang, the general manager for Baozilnn who is helping to translate my questions for Law, tells me. “But we make it very special by putting the colour with a natural ingredient like beetroot.”
The bright pink “ruby" prawn dumplings—har gow with a pinky-red wrapping—are one of the most popular coloured dumplings on the Baozilnn menu. Despite their strangely artificial appearance, the coloured dim sum are all made using natural dyes. There’s the yellow chicken and prawn shao mai made with turmeric, or the emerald green prawn and chive variety, which gets its hue from spinach juice.
“I had an idea about the future,” Law tells me, “to make the dim sum new in the market.”
“We want to put the colour with fresh ingredients,” adds Pang, “and play around with the dim sum.”
As I squeeze in next to steaming bamboo baskets in BaoziInn’s small kitchen, Law shows me the process behind the rainbow har gow. First, he adds beetroot juice to the dough, then kneads until it has reached the right colour. After the dough has rested, Law rolls it into a long cylinder, cuts off a small part and, using a knife, flattens the dough into a perfectly thin circle. It’s a technique that requires a lot of skill, a very smooth table, and an intimidatingly large knife.
“With this pastry, you need a knife to make a round shape, and you have to make the fine thickness to wrap up,” says Pang, gesturing to the ruby dumplings. “I think it’s very skilful. It is the traditional way, there is no way you can use a machine.”
Once the dough has reached the right thickness, Law carefully fills the pastry with a mixture of whole prawns, rather than the mince filling usually found in Cantonese dumplings. In one swift movement, he tucks the prawns inside the dough, and forms the dumpling into the traditional curved har gow shape. Finally, the ruby dumplings are placed into a bamboo steamer, and cooked until they are a hot, glistening red.
The ruby prawn dumplings may look like a gimmick, but their taste proves otherwise. By filling the har gow with whole prawns instead of mince, Baozilnn’s eye-catching dish is miles tastier than the squishy budget dumplings I store in my freezer for months. Instead, the whole-prawn filling provides a satisfyingly meaty, crunchy bite.
“When people are eating the food,” explains Law, after we sit down on a table outside BaoziInn’s stall to try the dumplings, “the whole prawn gives a crisp texture.”
“But it's expensive!” laughs Pang. “We try to put the prawn texture with the whole prawn, instead of the minced prawn, and then the special thing that we put [focus] on is freshness, as we make every morning in the restaurant.“
“To make a good dim sum, I believe you have to make it today,” he continues. “This is the strong point [that] makes our food special.”
A queue is now forming outside BoaziInn but before I give up my table space to hungry market-goers, I ask Law and Pang whether they plan to add any other brightly coloured dishes to the menu. Pang pauses, not wanting to reveal this “secret,” and then gets excited and tells me anyway.
“We want to play a lot with the colours,” he explains. “We might be doing a chicken rice—chicken rice is very common—but how you do it special? Imagine you have a chicken rice, and then you have three rice [portions] with colours—red, blue, and green. It looks very different.”
I’m not sure how enticing blue rice sounds, but if the ruby dumplings are anything to go by, it could be a winner. Even if the name isn't quite as amazing.