Thursday, June 18, 2015

Sticky Rice in Bamboo Leaves Parcels (Zong Zi)...

On the fifth day of the fifth moon of the Chinese lunar calendar marks Dragon Boat Festival-- this year it lands on Saturday, June 20th! This is an incredible time when dragon boat races are held all over China. Dragon-decorated long paddle-boats compete against each other in races to commemorate the anniversary death of Chu Yuan. So who was Chu Yuan and what does he have to do with sticky rice dumplings? He was an honest statesman and a poet, drowning himself in the river of Miluo Jiang in Hunan province in 295 BC in protest against the government corruption. The story goes that the people were so upset they went out to search for his body on their boats. Throwing packets of rice and eggs into the water were attempts to feed the fish and dissuade them from eating the poet's body. As a reminder, the Chinese race dragon boats and eat Zong zi. 

Zong zi is a Chinese version of tamales-- bamboo leaves are wrapped around glutinous sweet sticky rice mixed with all sorts of filling- savoury or sweet and boiled until ready. My favourite is savoury with seasoned pork belly, Chinese cured sausage, peanuts and duck egg yolk. I grew up on my grandma's zong zi... I only wish that I learned the tricks of the trade first-hand when she was still alive-- she probably made them until she was 90, and she passed at 98! My aunt also makes them and delivers freshly cooked batches to our family every time the occasion arises. 

If you’ve had the privilege of someone make these for you, you should be very appreciative-- it’s a lot of work and very few people know how to make these well. After years of hemming and hawing about trying my hands on them, I'm finally pulling up my sleeves to make these time-consuming, labour-loving traditional food with my mom, and since there's so much involved it makes sense only to make a huge batch-- and to give some away. It'll be both our first time making these and together-- hoping not only to master the wrapping technique (that certainly didn't happen) but to continue its family legacy, and carry forward new memories around this beloved rice dumpling childhood favourite! 

My aunt brought over her expertly wrapped cooked zong zi--  she set the bar high as these were the look I was striving for!

Although I was able to muster a few obvious-novice zong zi (my mom wrapped most of them), I'll just say as long as you wrap them tightly with no chance of contents busting out during cooking, it's a success! And the verdict... read on and see for yourself.

Sticky Rice in Bamboo Leaves Parcels (Zong Zi)
Makes 24 zong zi (divide the recipe in half for a dozen)

60 dried bamboo leaves (about 2 leaves for each)-- look for this package in the dried food aisle
8 cups uncooked short grain sticky rice (also called glutinous rice, or "sweet rice")
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1 Tbsp. salt
2 tsp. oil
1 cup of raw peanuts
1-1/2 lbs. pork belly, cut into medium pieces
1-1/2 Tbsp. light soy sauce
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. Chinese cooking wine 
1 tsp. five spice powder
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper
6 raw salted duck egg yolks (just cooked duck yolks can be hard to find. You can purchase raw whole duck eggs individually or in packages of six). -- see below for preparations
4 Chinese cured sausages (lap cheurng)
Materials: a pair of scissors and twine

Prepare the following ingredients overnight. Soak the bamboo leaves in a large basin with the leaves submerged, as well as peanuts in a bowl with enough water to cover overnight. In a bowl, toss the pork belly with the light soy sauce, sugar, salt, wine, five spice powder and pepper to marinate overnight. (This will give the pork belly a more salty taste to impart into the rice when cooking, delivering its distinctive savoury flavour).
Cut out excess fat off the pork belly pieces.

The next day, soak rice in large bowl with enough water to cover four hours. Next, drain water from leaves; wash and rinse each leaf front and back. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add leaves and boil for 15 minutes-- this will further soften the leaves and make them extra pliable to work with. After four hours is up, drain the rice completely. Mix the rice with light soy sauce, salt and oil in a large bowl and set aside. Boil peanuts for five minutes, drain, and set aside.

If using whole raw duck eggs, crack the eggs into a bowl, and scoop out the egg yolk in another bowl. Cut into 1/4 pieces. Save the whites for another use-- see tip below. Cut the Chinese sausages on an angle into 12 equal pieces.
Usage TIP: For reserved duck egg whites, swirl at the end into hot soups or ramen noodle, or whisk it along with regular eggs 
when making scrambled eggs or an omelet. It is salted already so light up on the pre-seasoning, and taste after cooking to adjust.

Now you're all set to rock and wrap... 

Bottom Right: I also bought cooked duck eggs, removing the yolk to use. I learned I prefer using raw over cooked in zong zi.

Although we tried a few different folding styles, this was the one that stuck and worked for us. Follow the step-by-step photos to wrap zong zi. From top left clockwise:
1) Cut away at least half an inch off the bottom of every leaf you use (hard stem).
2) Using two bamboo leaves, overlap half of one over the other lengthwise.
3) Hold the leaves with both hands and make a curve in the centre and fold up to form a cone.
4) Arrange the leaves so they are upright, and cradle the cone of the leaves in your palm.
Cook's NOTE: If leaves rip anywhere during the wrapping process, you’ll need to start over and discard the ripped leaf. That’s why I call for more leaves than is technically needed. Some of the leaves are bound to get ripped.

Now that you have a nice deep well, fill with a little rice partway up the leaves, along with your egg yolk, peanuts, pork belly, and Chinese sausage; top to cover with a bit more rice (Don't overload or it will burst when folding).

See how deep the contents are filled giving you a good handle of leaves to fold with!

From top left clockwise: Fold the two sides into the middle lengthwise, cupping your hands at the bottom of the cone so it doesn't fall apart. Pinch the leaves at the top so you get a tight seal. Fold the leaves down. 

Tie the zong zi tightly and securely with twine-- as long as they are sealed well with no chance of leaking during cooking, it doesn't have to be pretty. Cut off the excess leaves. Repeat until you run out of rice or leaves.

Ok, my first decent rice dumpling and that was like-- how many attempts?!

My mom and sister-in-law Yoko busy at work. It took a while with a few broken leaves, some frustration and regroup before we got into the groove. Yoko referred to an on-line Japanese video, and my mom persisted with a technique she remembered her aunties doing from eons ago in Hong Kong. I was taking photos and notes, so that was my excuse for not being as hunkered down as they were-- which only led to maybe five zong zi contributed on my part.

Looking good!!

My mom examining the wares before cooking them in the pot while my dad looked on approvingly (he's been bugging my mom for years to learn preparing these). Making sure there were no rips or gaps that chanced rice and contents to leak out-- smart move to make! Also, for easier removal in bunches from the hot pot, my mom says traditionally people string the zong zi together by looping a twine between the strings of parcels- we did five. Leave enough string to lift out of pot with tongs of course.

I love this photo of my mom hoisting two light bunches of zong zi tied together with a string.

To cook the zong zi, get a large-sized pot and nestle the zong zi snuggling each other inside. Pour boiling water until the zong zi are submerged. Place the pot on the stove over medium high heat. Once the water boils, turn the heat to medium, and let it cook for at least four hours undisturbed for the most part. Then turn off heat and let sit for 1/2 hour-- total of 4-1/2 hours. Remove carefully into strainer, drain well and serve hot!

TIP: Check the pot on occasion to make sure the zong zi are submerged in water. If not, add enough hot water to cover. Keep hot water in a kettle or thermos so that you’re prepared throughout the four hours cooking time.

Cook From Frozen TIP:  Zong zis can be frozen after they cool to room temperature. To reheat, first defrost the zong zi by taking it out of the freezer a few hours prior to cooking time. Re-boil the zong zi in water for 15-20 minutes.

Woohoo-- my first attempt at zong zi!! Come and get them while they're super hot!!

Serve with light soy sauce and hot sauce at the table-- I like mine with a dim sum favourite Koon Yick Wah Kee chili sauce.

My kids love zong zi! Eat it straight out of the leaves by holding it or chow down with a fork! Delicious either way!

So there we have it... a full day's work if you include the preparations of soaking the bamboo leaves and marinating the pork belly overnight. While it's true this is a lot of work and not many people will roll up their sleeves in making these from scratch, there's nothing like challenging myself with a legendary childhood favourite-- one that my late grandma who I adored, helmed the kitchen making! This is my nod to our customs for the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival-- a look into a past food I grew up on and a gateway into the future where I can continue enjoying this family's tradition and hopefully pass on the same culinary legacy, love and skills to my children.

If you looking for a lazy way out (trust me I understand) but still want the flavours of zong zi, try my Fragrant Lotus Leaf Sticky Rice straight or by substituting the lotus leaf for bamboo ones, and simply adding pork belly and salted duck yolks.

Fragrant Lotus Leaf Sticky Rice

Another Dragon Boat Festival favourite is Chinese Marbled Tea Eggs... give this delight a fun whirl. Chinese tea eggs are a favourite with my kids, and the attractive marbling with their aromatic savoury flavour of anise, tea and soy are super comforting, not mentioning delicious.

Chinese Marbled Tea Eggs

My lucky friend Kate Chou in Taiwan found some fresh bamboo leaves climbing up the mountain with her mom recently to use for zong zi. Her family also adds dried shrimp, dried squid, shiitake mushrooms and chestnut. Just to show, there are so many different varieties and combinations you can make with zong zi. Find your favourite ingredients and run (wrap) with them.

Photo Credit: Kate Chou

Photo Credit: Kate Chou


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