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Dumpling festival is upon us!
I have a real fear-of-missing-out when it comes to food. Bakzhang photos are beginning to trickle into my Instagram feed and I’m itching in anticipation of the next time Wex and I can drive into the city or the next town to do a huge Asian grocery shop.
I only started making bakzhangs in recent years - the first time being when we first moved to Melbourne and realized that the dumplings cost $8 here. Also, given that there are no Singaporean-run restaurants, eateries or grocers here, the dumplings we get here (bamboo-wrapped or otherwise) never taste completely like home.
I’ve grown up all my life eating Hokkien bakzhangs, the most plentiful and abundant type of zongzi in Singapore… though recently I have a few new favourites. The first is the Teochew dumplings, introduced to me by Wex’s ahma. On top of the savoury toppings that you’d typically find in Hokkien bakzhangs, Teochew zongzis have a sneaky little knob of red bean or taro paste in a corner. I love sweetness in my savoury food and salt in my sweets, so naturally, this was a big win for me.
My first attempt at making zongzi below - see the red bean paste in the corner?
The second type of zongzi that I’m currently obsessed with is the Nonya zhang. Growing up, Nonya zhangs were never good - they were always underseasoned and tasted somewhat stale. When I made it at home for the first time last year, without taking any short-cuts - grinding my own coriander powder and snipping squares of pandan to add to the bamboo cone - I was completely overwhelmed by how good they tasted. The combined fragrance of the pandan, coriander seed and taucheo threw me off guard. I was so confident of them that I sold them to a homesick Peranakan couple in Melbourne (they bought 6)!
My first attempt at Nonya zhang that I was/ and am still so proud of:
If all works out, Wex and I’d be able to make a trip to our nearest Asian grocer (in the next town, mind you!) this weekend and procure some bamboo leaves and I’d have a Nonya zhang video ready for you guys in the upcoming weeks.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with ten tips for your zongzi adventures at home:
Always soak the leaves and reed strings - these are brittle and will break if you don’t fully rehydrate them. Soak in water from a boiled kettle overnight with a tablespoon of oil to stop the dumplings from sticking to the leaves. There is nothing more disappointing than unveiling a less-than-perfect dumpling.
Hand-chop your pork - while I’m of the opinion that ground meat is the way to go for dumplings, you should definitely hand-chop your pork for Nonya or Hakka dumplings.
Toast and grind your own coriander powder for Nonya zhang.
Pandan flavour is so important to the Nonya zhang - add tiny squares to your bamboo cones before adding the rice and fillings and boil the wrapped dumplings in pandan-scented water.
Some Nonyas don’t use taucheo to season their meat, but I really think it makes a world of a difference.
The soaked and drained glutinous rice should always be fried, in my opinion. I use shallot oil but you can use lard. Vegetable oil has no flavour and frying rice in it will only serve the purpose of reducing the tendency of your dumplings sticking to the leaves.
If you’re making Teochew dumplings, make sure you talk to your butcher way in advance to ensure that you can get the caul fat that you need to wrap the pastes.
Wrap the dumplings tight… unless you’re making kee zhang. Lye water raises the alkalinity of the glutinous rice, encouraging water absorption during the boiling process. As a result, kee zhang should be wrapped loosely to allow the rice to expand and not break the leaves. Shake the wrapped kee zhang to listen for the sound of rice hitting against the leaves.
Most recipes wrap marinated raw meats in the rice, but I prefer to fully braise my meats to take the guesswork out of the boiling process - dumplings made of raw or semi-cooked pork may need to be boiled for up to 3 hours. Since making dumplings is a solo endeavour for me, I don’t fancy sacrificing dumplings to check doneness.
Steaming is best for dumplings with almost completely cooked ingredients. I prefer boiling, making sure to overseason both the seasonings and the rice and fry in a generous amount of oil - this is to compensate for the leaching of seasoning and oil in the boiling process.
Day 1 morning:
10g dried or fresh blue pea flowers
1kg glutinous rice, split into 350g and 650g
Day 1 evening/ night:
50-60 dried bamboo leaves (you will need only 40 but soak more to account for tearing)
25-35 reed string or cotton twine about 1.3m in length (you will need only 20 but soak more reed string to account for breaking)
6 tablespoons shallot oil or vegetable oil
750g rindless pork belly, cut into a small dice (the smaller the better)
18 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in water until soft, discard stems, cut into a small dice like the pork (reserve liquid)
240g candied winter melon, small dice like the pork
1 ½ tablespoon freshly ground coriander (toast in a dry pan then grind)
¾ teaspoon ground white pepper
3 heaped tablespoon tau cheo
Dark soy sauce (optional if your taucheo is of the dark variety)
4 teaspoons salt
A large bunch of whole pandan leaves
20 small rectangles of pandan leaves
More shallot oil
I find it easiest if you spread the work out over two days. The morning of day 1, soak the rice. The night of day 2, fry the rice and filling and soak the leaves. Assemble and cook the Nonya zhang on day 3.
On the morning of day 1, combine the dried blue pea flowers and 800g water in a pot. Bring to a boil and allow to cool down before passing through a sieve. Press down on the flowers to extract all the liquid – discard the flowers. Rinse 350g glutinous rice and combine with the blue pea infused liquid in a bowl. In a separate bowl, rinse 650g glutinous rice and allow to soak in a liberal amount of water. The rice should soak for at least 6 hours before frying.
Place the bamboo leaves and reed strings in a large pail or Esky. Fill with boiling water to cover and allow to soak overnight. You won’t need to soak cotton strings if you are using them. Heat a large saucepan over high heat until your hand placed over it feels hot. Add 2 tablespoons of the shallot oil and once it shimmers, add the pork belly in batches, stirring to break up the pieces. You don’t want it to cook for so long over high heat in the pan or it will be dry and hard – it’s best to work in batches in a hot pan. Add the diced mushrooms and saute for a few minutes or until fragrant before adding the candied melon. Cook the candied melon for a few minutes or until it loosens its white, dusty appearance to take on a more glistening, jeweled look. Add coriander, white pepper, taucheo and dark soy sauce, if preferred, for colour. When completely stirred in, add 250g shiitake soaking liquid and cook until the mixture has reduced to a thick saucy consistency – you don’t want the liquid to completely evaporate or for the mixture to get too dry. Taste it and adjust the seasoning – it should be sweet, salty and savoury and should be too strong to eat on its own. Transfer to a dish to cool down.
Drain both bowls of soaked rice and fry them separately. Fry the regular rice with 3 tablespoons of shallot oil and 3 teaspoons of salt and blue rice with 1 tablespoon of shallot oil and 1 teaspoon of salt. Add some water to avoid the rice being dry. The rice is ready when it is still raw but starting to clump. Transfer both blue and white rice to dishes, making sure to keep them separate. You can also choose to mix both colours of rice together to achieve a marbled effect.
To assemble the dumplings, everything should be at room temperature. Bring a large pot or wok of water to boil with the whole pandan leaves, allow to simmer to infuse as you tie the dumplings.
Tie the ends of the strings to a metal hook and hang it on a door or cupboard handle. Drain and rinse the bamboo leaves individually. Dry each with a paper towel or clean cloth before rubbing lightly with shallot oil – don’t be too generous with the oil or your dumplings will be too oily. Line two leaves up in a straight line, tapered ends facing the middle – they should overlap more than three-quarters of the way. Fold it to form a cone, then add a pandan leaf square. Add a thin layer of glutinous rice just to cover the base, then add a generous amount of filling. Cover half of the filling with white rice and the other half with blue rice. Add less rice than you think you require as the rice will swell. Fold the excess leaves down over the rice, bring up the sides, before folding excess leaves down. Tie tightly with string. Remove the pandan leaves from the pot or wok and bring the water up to a rolling boil. Tie the ends of the dumpling strings together and add the dumplings – if your pot or wok is not large enough to accommodate all, work in batches. Boil for 1 hour, covered. Contrary to what aunties usually tell you, I don’t think it is necessary to completely submerge the dumplings in water – three quarters of the way is sufficient, as long as your pot is well-sealed. Hang the Nonya zhang to drain and drip dry for at least an hour before consuming.