What did you do yesterday?
If you are Chinese, chances it had something to do with sticky rice dumplings, dragon boats or tragic, patriotic poems.
It was the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, and known as Duan Wu Jie 端午节.
Sticky rice dumplings. Dragonboat races. Did you know the two have an intimate connection? Here’s one of the legends.
Qu Yuan, Sticky Rice Dumplings and Dragon Boats
Picture this: China, about 2,300 years ago.
Framed and exiled patriotic poet Qu Yuan (屈原) was so distraught by the fall of his beloved Chu State to the Qin that he wrote his final poem “Embracing Sand”, then tragically committed suicide by clutching a big rock and drowning himself in a river on – you guessed it – the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.
The villagers wanted to prevent the river fish from eating the body of the revered Qu Yuan.
So they threw rice dumplings into the river as alternative fish food. What’s more, fishermen on boats beat their paddles in the water and drummed drums to scare off the fish.
So there you have it – the genesis of rice dumplings and dragon boats.
Back to the present. In China today, Duan Wu Jie is a significant occasion, marked by public holidays, dragon boat races, and eating sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves (粽子 “zong zi” or “bakchang”).
Here in Sydney, we get a proliferation of sticky rice dumplings at the Asian grocers (some should still be around this weekend). And you’ll see bamboo leaves and sticky rice go on sale, for the good folk who make their own.
Below: Dried bamboo leaves and sticky rice on sale at my local Chinese grocery shop yesterday.
A paramedic once came on a food tour with me. His eyes lit up when I showed him sticky rice dumplings for sale in a Chinese grocery shop.
I explained you can eat them at room temperature, or microwave them (bamboo leaf and all) for just a minute.
You don’t even need bowls or spoons – just unwrap the dumpling, hold it by the bamboo leaf and deVOUR!
The paramedic thought this was the perfect packed lunch for eating inside the ambulance while on the go. Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Mother-in-law’s Sticky Rice Dumplings
Sticky rice dumplings are fast to eat and slow to cook.
I could kiss the feet of anyone who makes these for me.
It is a painstakingly time-consuming labour of love, which can easily take an entire day (or two).
Step 1: Shop for the myriad ingredients.
Step 2: Separately cook the ingredients.
Step 3: Assemble and wrap the dumplings.
Step 4: Cook the dumplings.
None of those steps is a 5-minute job.
In the picture below, I am at my mother-in-law’s house in Malaysia, with the ingredients she had individually prepared.
The individually prepared components of this sticky rice dumpling include: ~ rice grains seasoned and fried with yellow beans ~ braised, slightly fatty pork ~ fried dried shrimp ~ chestnuts ~ salted egg yolk ~ dried mussels All that work before it even looks like a dumpling! My mother-in-law taught me the finer points of wrapping dumplings. There is a technique to lining up two bamboo leaves, then shaping and tying the pyramid to ensure no leakage occurs while cooking.
My kindly mother-in-law’s savoury rice dumpling is tops! ^_^
Every component bursts with flavours, and they all have different textures. It’s happy days for me when we visit and she whips out dumplings that she has squirrelled away in the freezer for us.
The dried bamboo leaf used to wrap sticky rice dumplings. This leaf is the length of an A3 sheet of paper or more. The bigger the leaf, the easier it is to wrap.
Neighbour’s Sticky Rice Dumplings
My generous Chinese neighbour gave us 8 home-made sticky rice dumplings yesterday. Yippee-yi-yay and whoop-dee-doo!
I didn’t kiss my neighbour’s feet. But I did return the favour with a pot of my special warm and soothing barley and soy dessert.
My neighbour’s version contains braised pork belly, dried mussels, big red beans and peanuts. Full of goodness and yummyness.
Grandmother’s Sticky Rice Dumplings
My favourite version will always remain the sweet, coriander seed-laced nonya bakchang my aunts and my late paternal grandma used to make, tinged with decorative blue dye from flowers.
I was a lucky kid to have these every year.
It has been over 20 years since I last had those dumplings. They are a cherished memory. I can still smell and taste it very clearly in my mind.
I credit these dumplings for my childhood ability to sniff out coriander powder at 10 paces. Even though I didn’t know its name or what it looked like until I started cooking many years later.
Dragon Boat Races
In Sydney, the dragonboat competitions are out of sync with the Rice Dumpling Festival.
Sydney’s dragonboat races are held in summery February to coincide with the Chinese New Year – a sensible approach because it is too cold to row in wintry June.
I was part of a dragonboat team at university which was great fun.
Below: I’m in the 2nd row from the front, wearing the black “WL” cap and standing in front of a pair of twins.
Then there was the bonding to be had with some 30 people on Carb-loading Night, on the eve of race day. Plans for $10 pasta at Cafe Zambezi fell through because it went bust, possibly from charging too little.
So my housemates-cum-fellow-rowers and I hosted Carb-loading Night in our flowery wallpapered student digs, cooking up big pots of red sauce and white sauce. If opening numerous bottles of “Chicken Tonight” qualifies as cooking.
Below: I’m in the bottom left corner sporting a helmet of permed hair.
Our team didn’t win, but we didn’t expect to do so. We didn’t come last either, which was a possibility, and therefore a reason for elation.
What else happened yesterday
I know a person who did something interesting on the day of the Rice Dumpling/ Dragon Boat Festival.
That would be my charming, clever cousin who had her university graduation yesterday. Congratulations, cuz!
I know she will go far. This is the cousin who, as a wee child aged 6, was overheard telling her friend:
“Sorry, I can’t play at your house because I have Maths tuition.”
That’s funny. She didn’t have tutoring in anything. Turns out she didn’t particularly like hanging out with that friend, but was smart and tactful enough to craft a diplomatic rejection.
Deft work – just like the work of people who make those tricky sticky rice dumplings.