Of all the Chinese culinary-related events, I would like to vote dragon boat festival dumpling-eating is one of my favorites. It ranks way up there with pineapple tarts from Chinese New Year and moon cake from mid-autumn festival. The Chinese culinary calendar is very exciting for me and it gives me something to look up to. It doesn’t hold that much meaning anymore in the country, and more and more people are forgetting, or rather ignoring, what it stands for. For my mother, the tradition holds strong, and it passes on to me too.
When my grandmother was still around, this was always a big thing. All her children would gather up in her house and help with the preparation. They would also chip in to buy ingredients. The making of dumplings was a family-bonding time. These days, people would rather not eating than spending two days of preparation, not to mention spending money to buy best ingredients. At the end, only my mother and I were the only one left making them for the past two years. But we were having a lot of fun.
Different families have different way of preparing and use different fillings. Especially the technique of wrapping the dumplings, it is passed down within families. I love symmetry, naturally, and our way of wrapping dumplings result in very symmetrical three-cone-shaped dumplings. And I think they are the prettiest dumplings.
My mother believes that when you make and prepare dumplings, you’d need to be in a happy place. Those in bad mood will make bad dumplings. I think it works with cooking any dishes. Happy cooks make delicious dish. So to make me in a good place, I’d need a big fan, a big glass of ice tea, and soothing music. Wrapping dumplings is an all-day event, so a lot of things would need to be in place to keep me in a good place.
There are two types of dumplings we often enjoy during the dragon boat festival, the sweet and the savory kinds. The savory types are everybody’s favorite with all the rich and delicious fillings in there. The sweet dumplings, or also known as alkaline dumplings, are treated as dessert, served with coconut jam or gula melaka syrup.
This is the post that I have been trying to do for the past three years. This is really not easy, since we only cook the dumpling once a year, that is really one day a year. The whole preparation takes two days, a real two whole days, beginning with marinading the pork belly and washing the leaves. Naturally I always missed the first part, since they always did it when I was at work. And once I get the pictures wrong, I’d wait till the next year for another shot. Finally. After three years of waiting and three backposts.
I am yet to meet a Chinese who doesn’t love zong zi. The right way to eat the dumpling is to hold the wrapper and dumpling with both hands and eat straight from the leaves. We always eat it with fork, on a plate. After the third day, leftover dumplings are kept in the fridge. We’d heat it up by 15 minutes steaming before serving. They’d normally last for a couple of weeks, although ours never last that long.
Main ingredients are glutinous rice, various dried mushrooms and seafood, pork belly, garlic and salted egg yolks. The Indonesian inside us couldn’t resist adding bird’s eye chili. That is a definite must!
Get the best quality glutinous rice you can find. Lesser quality will include broken grains and sometimes some normal rice is mixed in there too.
Wash the rice with clean running water for a couple of minutes, rubbing the grains between your palms, pouring away the water. Wash it again with clean water. Do this at least three times until the water becomes clear, instead of cloudy white. Soak the rice for a couple of hours to overnight.
The first process of preparing the leaves is done two day in advance for us. Get some larger size bamboo leaves. These are sold in plastic bags imported from China. My mother and grandmother took great pains cleaning the leaves. Cut off ties that come with the leaves. Soak overnight. The next morning, boil a big pot of water and drop the leaves into boiling water. Let boil over medium heat for 3-4 hours. Transfer the leaves into a big bucket of clean water. Then the leaves are wiped individually with wet kitchen towel and keep soaked in new clean water until using.
Invest in the freshest pork belly – that means trip to the market one day before the big day. The pork should have layers of fat. Fat is great friend of rice dumplings.
Some dried oysters. This gives the dumplings interesting smokey flavor.
Dried chestnuts are always included too. Break them into smaller pieces manually. It gives the dumplings sweetness and interesting texture.
Dried shrimp are soaked for 30 minutes or less, then drained.
Some dried shiitake mushrooms. Also soaked for half an hour then drained.
One of the yummiest items in our rice dumpling, salted egg yolks. Break the egg shells and strain off the egg whites. Use a piece of string to cut through the yolks. We use one half of yolk for each single dumpling.
Some Chinese pork sausages. Mother loves to cut them into bite-sizes, about 2cm length, and cut diagonally.
What’s dumpling without a bit of heat? We would normally use green Thai bird’s eye chilies. This year, there’s an overstock of red bird’s eye chilies in our fridge.
When all the ingredients are prepared, it is time to marinade the main filling. We do this one day in advance. Or six hours before we actually plan to make the dumplings. Wash pork with cold running water. Sprinkle some coarse salt on it and rub lightly. Wash again with water. Drain on a colander. Cut pork belly, about 2 cm thickness.
Season pork with salt, white pepper and five spice powder.
And some dark soy sauce.
Mix well and let marinade for 6 hours to overnight.
On the day when you are actually going to make rice dumpling. start first by stir-frying pork belly. Heat up oil in a wok over high heat. When the oil is warm enough, add sugar.
Use spatula to stir-fry the sugar. At this time, there’s no stopping with the spatula work or the sugar will burn. I watched in awe as mother cooked this. The sugar will first turn into ugly and grainy lumps.
After a couple of more seconds of stirring, it turns into watery brownish and transparent liquid.
After half a minute, it turns solid brown. Amazing. Toss in chopped garlic during this stage.
Work quickly too during this stage. Keep stirring for an even caramelization process of the sugar and oil. The garlic shouldn’t turn brown. At all.
When the sugar turns bubbly, toss in mushrooms.
And dried oysters.
Mix well and cook for a couple of minutes more over high heat.
Add marinate pork into the wok.
Cook till all ingredients are combined well and pork is just cooked. Don’t overdo it.
Heat more oil in the wok.
Add salt and garlic into the hot oil. Quickly stir-fry till fragrant.
Add soaked rice into the hot wok.
Season with five spice powder.
And dark soy sauce.
Stir-fry until all the seasoning is well absorbed by the grains of rice. The rice will feel slightly lighter after a while. It would be the sign that the rice is done.
Lastly, heat up a bit of oil. Stir-fry chopped garlic.
Add dried shrimp. Season with sugar.
And some light soy sauce.
Stir-fry till the sugar caramelizes and turns the shrimp into this delicious brownish hue.
Transfer the pork belly stir-fry and dried shrimp stir-fry into a big pot. Slowly simmer over low heat.
Prep carefully before starting making dumplings. Line up all the ingredients by the order they are used. I’d put leaves first, then rice, pork belly stir-fry, dried shrimp, pork sausages, salted yolk, dried chestnut and chili. Another tip on the bamboo leaves, it should never let dried out. Damp a couple of thick kitchen towels or small bath towels. Cover the leaves with those at all times. Dried out leaves make folding a lot more difficult and risking tearing the leaves.
Get two leaves. line them alternately, stem on the left and the second leaf on top of the first one should be stem on the right. Shiny part of the leaves facing up.
Fold the leaves right in the middle by bringing both sides to the middle, forming a perfect cone. Hold the cone with your left hand. Hold it steady by putting the end of cone between your ring finger and little finger.
Put a couple of tablespoons of rice into the cone, make a whole right in the middle by using back of a spoon. Take care not to have too much rice. We would want the dumpling to have more filling than rice. Okay, rice is boring. Pork is yummy. There, I said it.
Fill the dumpling with three or four pieces of pork belly, a couple of pieces of mushrooms, some dried shrimp and a piece of oyster.
Put a piece of pork sausage and salted yolk in the middle.
A couple of chilies and some chopped dried chestnut.
When all the fillings that’s supposed to go in there is already placed, cover up the top with some more rice. The top should be humpy, that’s alright.
Fold the top of the cones to cover the top of dumpling.
Press the bottom part of the cone into triangular shape. This requires strength and plain good eye for shape. Press the cone really hard so the hump is pushed down, all the way down, to the bottom left and right and shape the whole thing into a nice triangle.
Press the leftover leaves together and fold the top to the right (or left).
Press them hard to get all the fillings nicely packed.
Tie the dumpling with a piece of string tightly.
Symmetrical is the word. And practice.
Boil a big pot of water. Add the dumplings into boiling water.
Cook for 5 hours over high heat. Remove from water and let drain for a couple of hours, hanging. Serve warm.
Chinese Rice Dumpling, Zong Zi, Bak Chang
For glutinous rice
1/4 cup cooking oil
1/2 tbsp salt
100 g garlic, roughly chopped
1 kg glutinous rice, soaked and drained
2 tbsp five spice powder
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
For pork belly stir-fry filling
1,5 kg pork belly
1 tbsp salt
1/2 tbsp ground white pepper
1 tbsp five spice powder
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1/4 cup cooking oil
1/2 cup sugar
100 g garlic, roughly chopped
10 dried mushrooms, soaked, drained and quartered
150 g dried oysters
For dried shrimp stir-fry
1/4 cup cooking oil
50 g garlic, coarsely chopped
150 g dried shrimp, soaked and drained
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp light soy sauce
250 g dried chestnuts, coarsely chopped or manually broken into three to four pieces each
20 salted egg yolks, halved
10 Chinese sausage, cut into bite sizes
50 g Thai bird's eye chili
80 pcs bamboo leaves, large size
Preparation for bamboo leaves, two days in advance
Soak leaves in clean water overnight.
Boil a pot of water. Add bamboo leaves into boiling water to rehydrate the leaves.
Let boil over medium heat for 3-4 hours.
Remove leaves from hot water and soak them into prepared bucket filled with clean water.
Wipe each leaf with clean kitchen towel to rid off dust and other stuff off the leaf, front and back.
Soak the cleaned leaves in bucket of new clean water. Set aside until using.
Preparation for glutinous rice
Wash glutinous rice under running water. Change the water a couple of times, until the water becomes clear. Soak rice for 3-6 hours and drain. This to be done at the night before making dumplings.
Heat some cooking oil over high heat. Stir-fry garlic till fragrant, avoid burning by quickly stir them around with spatula.
Add rice to the wok. Season with five spice powder and dark soy sauce.
Continue stir-frying until all ingredients are evenly distributed and rice grains slightly fluff up and feels lighter.
Remove from heat and set aside.
Preparation for pork belly filling
Cut pork belly into bite sizes.
In a big bowl, combine pork belly, salt, pepper, five spice powder and dark soy sauce.
Let marinade in refrigerator overnight. Prepare this one day in advance.
On the day making dumplings, heat cooking oil in a wok over medium heat. When the oil is warming up, add sugar.
Stir-fry sugar quickly until the color turns into solid brown. Take notice of the temperature in order to be able to control the caramelization process of the sugar.
Add garlic, and continue stirring quickly with spatula.
When the sugar bubbles up, combine mushrooms and dried oysters into the wok.
Cook over high heat for a couple of minutes.
Add marinade pork into the wok.
Stir-fry until all ingredients are evenly distributed, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and transfer to a cooking pot.
Preparation for dried shrimp stir-fry
Stir-fry chopped garlic with some oil over high heat for a couple of seconds till fragrant.
Add soaked dried shrimp, sugar and soy sauce. Stir-fry quickly till sugar caramelized, coating the shrimp, about 3 - 4 minutes.
Remove from heat.
Combine shrimp with pork belly and let simmer over very low heat for 30 minutes.
Fold two leaves into cone-like. Fill lower part of cone with rice, about 2 tablespoons.
Add the rest of ingredients into the cone, that is pork belly, mushrooms, oysters, dried shrimp, salted yolk, Chinese sausage, dried chestnuts and chili. Cover up filling with more rice, 2 tablespoons.
Fold the dumpling accordingly and tie with a piece of string.
Boil a pot of water. Drop dumplings into boiling water.
Let cook over high heat for 5-6 hours.
Remove from water and let hanging to dry, about 30 minutes.
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