Dumplings and Dragons

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.

2013-06-12 16.11.38 Dragonboat race day

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.

2013-06-12 15.18.42

Food on the GoShanghai sticky rice dumpling

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.

Making bakchang

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!

bakchang wrappingMy 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.

zongzi bamboo leaf wrapThe 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!

2013-06-12 16.11.382013-06-12 16.12.59

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.

   Barley and soy dessert

My neighbour’s version contains braised pork belly, dried mussels, big red beans and peanuts.  Full of goodness and yummyness.

2013-06-12 16.16.11Zongzi insideZongzi cut

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.

Dragonboat race dayPatient readers, allow me to indulge in another blast from the past.

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.

Dragonboat team001I’d be the first to admit I’m hopeless at ball sports.  But rowing in time to a drumbeat and the person sitting in front appeals to the monkey-see-monkey-do side of me.

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.

Dragonboat pasta night

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.

Rowing out Racing boats

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.

2013-06-12 16.16.11

5 thoughts on “Dumplings and Dragons

  1. Yesterday was the Dragon Boat Festival! I’ve forgot about it until I read this blog. Strangely, I just commented on someone’s old blog about kue chang today. Do you know kue chang?
    I will buy all the ingredients for making bakchang this weekend… except the bamboo leaves as I still have plenty. I can buy bakchang anytime here in Melbourne, but home made (Indonesian version) is always nicer.
    Thanks for the nice blog.

  2. Hello Lois,
    It’s mission accomplished for me if even one person makes glutinous rice dumplings as a result of reading my blog post. You must be a kitchen whiz to make your own! Yes, I know kue chang, that’s the stuff of my childhood, straight out of my grandma’s kitchen. Happy wrapping – a nice way to pass the day if you get another wet Melbourne day.
    Cheers, Wee Lynn

  3. Pingback: Sticky Rice Dumpling (Bakcang) | Kiyanti2008's Weblog

  4. Your bakchang look simply beeewdeeful! That photo of the filling is making my stomach growl. Well done for all that hard work – all recipients of your bakchang are very lucky!

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