Rice Dumplings wrapped in Bamboo Leaves

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Today Chinese people all over the world celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival or “Duan Wu Jie”( 端午節) by eating a pyramid-shaped rice dumpling (called zongzi) and watching dragon boat races. There are several stories about the origin of this festival and the most common one is about an outstanding poet and politician called Qu Yuan from the State of Chu in China during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) who dedicated his whole life to assist the king to make the state of Chu stronger. He was slandered by jealous officials, dismissed by the king and exiled. During his exile, he wrote a lot of poems describing his love for his country and these poems have endured to the present day in China. In 278 BC the state of Qin conquered Chu. Overcome by melancholy on hearing about the State of Chu’s defeat, Qu Yuan jumped into the river and drowned. When the local people heard about it, they rowed their boats out to the river in search of him to no avail. Then they threw rice dumplings called zongzi (粽子) into the river to feed the fish so that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. Every year on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar,  Chinese people celebrate this festival by holding noisy and high-spirited dragon boat races, getting together for family reunion dinners and eating zongzi. This annual festival is celebrated by Chinese communities in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and even in New York and London.

Many years ago, families made their own zongzi but nowadays people buy them from davthe market or from Chinese restaurants. A few years ago, my Hong Kong friend Teresa showed me how to make zongzi. It is takes a bit of practice to make a perfectly-shaped zongzi.  The filling can be savory or sweet. There are many regional variances of the zongzi. For example, a Taiwanese zongzi has different fillings from a Hong Kong Cantonese zongzi or a Singapore Peranakan zongzi. A savory Cantonese zongzi may contain pork, duck meat, salted egg, mushrooms and scallops. The filling inside a sweet zongzi is typically sweetened red bean paste.

Below is the recipe for making a Cantonese savory zongzi (makes about 10).

Ingredients:

3 cups glutinous rice – soaked overnight
2 cups green beans
200 g fatty pork – cooked with a bit of salt or oyster sauce and cut into small pieces
10 salted egg yolks – cooked
5 dried scallops – soaked in water overnight
¼ roast duck meat – cut into small pieces
½ cup dried shrimp – soaked in water overnight, fried lightly to cook it
10 dried shiitake mushrooms – washed and soaked overnight, then braised and cooked in oyster sauce
½ cup soft boiled peanuts
2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Bamboo leaves for wrapping

Method:

  1. Wash the beans.
  2. Mix together rice, beans, salt and sugar.
  3. Wash the bamboo leaves. Soak the leaves in water for 10 mins to soften them.
  4. Place two leaves horizontally side by side, with the rib facing upwards, leave about half an inch of overlap between them.
  5. To make one zongzi, fold the pair of overlapping leaves into a cone. Fill the cone with a spoonful of rice and bean mixture.
  6. Place a small piece of pork, an egg yolk, scallops, roast duck, shiitake mushroom, peanuts and some dried shrimp.
  7. Cover the filling with more rice and bean mixture.
  8. Cover the top of the cone with 1 or 2 more leaves and fold the leaves over to make a pyramid shape. Fold the leaves back over the base by flipping the ends towards the pointy part of the cone. Secure it by typing a string over the pyramid.
  9. Repeat steps 5 – 8 to make more zongzi until all the rice and bean mixture is used up.
  10. Boil all the zongzi in a big pot of water for 2-3 hours, always keeping all the zongzi completely covered in water during the boiling process.
  11. Drain the water, cool the zongzi completely before you store them in the fridge or freezer.
  12. When you want to eat a zongzi from the fridge or freezer, you need to boil them again for 10-15 mins until the inside filling is hot. The zongzi should feel soft when it is done.

Kueh Lapis Sagu

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Today is the end of Ramadan, the fasting month for my Malay friends and to mark this Hari Raya day, I made a Peranakan delicacy called Steamed Kueh Lapis Sagu. When I was growing up in Singapore, every Hari Raya my next door neighbor, a Malay family, would spruce up their home with new curtains and rugs, wax and polish their terrazo floor to a beautiful shine and host a traditional “open house” at their home for all their friends and neighbors. The highlight for me is always the food – the explosively flavorful and tender beef rendang, the crispy prawn crackers and the many beautiful home-made Peranakan kuehs (cakes) which they served to their guests. There are many kinds of kuehs – the white and green Kueh Salat, the coconut-palm sugar pancake called Kueh Dadar, the round balls bursting with flavor called Ondeh-ondeh and the rainbow-hued Kueh Lapis Sagu. Made from coconut milk and pandan leaves, Kueh Lapis Sagu is delightfully fragrant and beautiful to look at.  Depending on the skill (and patience) of the cook, sometimes it comes in layers of purple, red, pink, yellow, green and white but often times it is only in layers of green, white and pink. Its Chinese name is “9 Layer Cake” (九层糕) because it is supposed to have 9 layers of the different colors.

Like many children of my generation, I enjoyed the game of eating Kueh Lapis Sagu by gently peeling the layers off one by one to see how many layers I could peel off without breaking the kueh, savoring every bite as I work my way through each layer.

When I lived overseas, for many years I had missed eating this kueh. Recently, my friend Janet shared her recipe with me and to my surprise, the kueh is really quite easy to make… but it does take quite a bit of patience because it has to be steamed one layer at a time – definitely, a labor of love!

Ingredients:

3/4 cup rice flour
1 and 1/4 cup tapioca flour
1 and 1/4 cup sugar
3 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
red food coloring
green food coloring
green pandan paste
pandan essence

Method:

  • Mix all the ingredients and stir well. Gently sieve the batter to get rid of clumps.
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  • Divide the batter into 3 portions:

Red (add 1/8 tsp red coloring to the batter)
Green (add 1/8 tsp green pandan paste to the batter)
White (add 1/8 tsp clear pandan essence to the batter)

  • Lightly rub cooking oil on the base and sides of a square or oblong glass casserole dish. (A glass dish allows you to see that the layers have even thickness. The casserole dish has to be deep enough to make 9 layers of kueh)
  • Steam each layer for 5 mins on high heat. Wait for each layer to be fully cooked before you add a new layer.
  •  Color sequence for the layers: green, white, red
  •  Wait for the kueh to cool completely before cutting into slices. Tip: If the kueh is too difficult to cut, gently grease your knife with cooking oil.

Note: Each layer is supposed to be of the same thickness. As you can see from the first picture, my layers were of uneven thickness. I started out with the good intention of making 9 layers of uniform thickness. The steaming process got a bit tedious and as I was rushing to run an errand, I shortened my cooking time by pouring on progressively thicker layers of batter, ending up with only 7 layers but it was still very delicious.