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Savory bundles of tradition

By Pauline D. Loh | China Daily | Updated: 2012-06-18 13:17
Savory bundles of tradition

In the markets and on the Web, the sale of zongzi, or rice dumplings, is now white hot, with the Duanwu Festival just around the corner. Pauline D. Loh looks at a very tasty tradition and how it is being carried forward.

Many stories surround Duanwu, the mid-summer festival that also commemorates the death of the patriot Qu Yuan (339-278 BC). This year it is on June 23. True to the trusted Chinese farmer's almanac, Duanwu usually marks the time when temperatures soar and pests and pestilence are out in full party. That is why this is also the time when mugwort bunches are hung on doors and xionghuang (realger) wine is drunk and splashed on floors, to fumigate pests inside and out.

The more active will now take to the nearest body of water and engage in vigorous rowing contests in dragon boats. Apart from giving those involved a good workout, this activity also gave the festival its other name, the Dragon Boat Festival.

My colleague Wang Linyan remembers her childhood memories of celebrating Duanwu.

"Duanwu is my favorite festival. It involves family, friends and even the whole neighborhood," she says.

"Several days before Duanwu, my mom would already set the festive mood, preparing raw materials for rice dumplings like green bamboo leaves, white glutinous rice, marinated meat cubes with preserved vegetables, red dates (for sweet dumpling).

"Every year, she makes three kinds of zongzi: with meat fillings (my favorite), with red dates and those with no filling but are eaten with sugar. These are the jianshui zong, or alkaline water dumplings, made by boiling them in water filtered through newly burned straw ashes."

Making zongzi is more than a family event, she says. It's a neighborhood affair.

"During the week before Duanwu, my mother would share some of her handmade zongzi with neighbors and friends, as well as help them make their own zongzi in their kitchens," she says.

"This is relatively rare now as people live in the high-rises more often than not, and they don't get to see or mix with their neighbors anymore."

Linyan also describes some traditions from her hometown of Wenzhou, in South China's Zhejiang province.

"Everyone must eat salted duck eggs on Duanwu. From then on, throughout summer, homemade salted duck eggs begin to appear in daily meals - as it gets hotter, it's refreshing to have a salty duck egg to go with porridge."

The eggs were also part of fun and games.

"On the day of Duanwu, the local children will hit hard-boiled eggs against one another. The egg that survives intact is the winner."

The children will wear their eggs in a prettily spun cotton bag, made of macrame, around their necks.

But Duanwu is still best known, and loved, for its rice dumplings, in all parts of China and the rest of the world. In fact, dumplings are popular everywhere the Chinese have chosen to settle. In Singapore and Malaysia, they are an important part of the Duanwu festivities.

Rosa Tan, 64, is currently in Beijing with her older daughter, who is working in the capital city. She is the daughter of Chinese emigrants who settled in the southern Malaysian state of Johor and grew up in a community of mainly Chaozhou Chinese.

Her rice dumplings reflect her own culinary heritage.

She doesn't call them zongzi, but "bak chang", which means meat dumplings in the southern Chinese dialects of Chaozhou and Fujian. Her recipe also reflects her family's taste.

"We replaced the dried prawns in the original recipe with heibi hiam, a spicy pounded prawn with chili," says her daughter, Valerie Ng. Rosa also picked up many tricks from her sister, who used to make the rice dumplings to sell.

"You cannot do a butterfly knot when tying up the dumplings," she tells me. "They will get loose when the reed strings dry up and the dumplings will fall apart."

That is probably why many dumplings for sale in China and abroad are bound with string or raffia.

If you want to try making your own rice dumplings for next week's festivities, Rosa has kindly agreed to share her recipe, a savory treat that will please those who like it salty, sweet and spicy.

Savory bundles of tradition

Recipe | Savory rice dumplings (Bak Chang)

Ingredients (makes about 30):

1 kg glutinous rice, soaked and drained

1 kg pork belly

200 g dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked

300 g ready-to-eat chestnuts

200 g dried prawns

500 g red bean paste (dousha)

50 g dried chilies

300 g garlic, minced

1 3-cm piece ginger

1 medium brown onion

2 tsp pepper

1 tsp five-spice powder

300 g shallots

1 tsp salt

2 tbsp oyster sauce

3 tbsp light soy sauce

3 tbsp dark soy sauce


Savory bundles of tradition

1. Prepare spicy prawn paste. Pound the dried prawns in a pestle and mortar until fine. Grind together dried chili, ginger, garlic and onion and add to pounded prawns.

2. Heat up some oil in a wok and fry the mixture until fragrant.

3. Peel and slice the shallots and fry in oil over low heat until fragrant and crisp. Set aside.

4. Blanch the pork belly in boiling water for five minutes. Remove from heat and cut into smaller chunks.

5. Marinate the pork belly pieces in the light and dark soy sauce, minced garlic, pepper and five-spice powder. Leave to season for an hour or longer.

6. Place the marinated pork over low fire and cook for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside the gravy.

7. Add the glutinous rice to the gravy in the pan and fry and mix well. Take the rice off the fire and mix in the crispy fried shallots.

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