Happy Year of the Rooster! + A Recipe for Kok Zai
My late grandmother from my mom’s side was known to be a great cook. My mother often recalls how she would cook a banquet for family celebrations with little help, and I have very fond memories of how specific she was with her food when she lived with us in her final years. Every year, around 2 weeks before Chinese New Year, the entire family is busied over ordering flowers, filling red packets and doing chores, much akin to Thanksgiving here in the States.
One of my favourite tradition is “開油鍋”, literally meaning “to starting the stove”, and truly demarcates the start of new year’s preparation. To me, this is a tradition so deeply rooted in our food culture, where (usually) the women in the household form a production line to create a plethora of traditional snacks and puddings. One of my grandmother’s most famed items is kok zai, a sweet fried dumpling shaped like a yuan bao, the currency used in ancient China.
Kok zais are one of those easy to make snacks that never fail to impress. The dough is extremely forgiving, and can be fried or baked, depending on how close to tradition or how healthy you want to be. My mom insists that I stick to tradition and use lard but I opted for butter instead. Fill the dough with a crunchy and chewy peanut/sesame/coconut mixture, and twist the edges into beautiful ruffles.
The kok zai dough is meant to be quite sturdy and with a substantial crumb, the kind that’s perfect for kids but would take a little effort for old ladies with fake teeth. Bite into it and the crust it will break off and expose the filling. There’s no need to be too elegant with it, you’re bound to have little bits of sesame and coconut all over your immediate vicinity. My best advice is to pick them with the fleshy part of your fingertips.
A couple tips. Use the freshest egg you can find. The egg yolk gives the dough a beautiful golden colour and rich flavor. For the filling, add a bit of sesame paste so it has some integrity and won’t fall to the edges when you foldthe dough over. You can substitute with peanut butter or a mix of peanut and sesame paste.
Kok Zai (Fried Sesame Dumpling)
Makes around 35 dumplings.
For the filling:
½ cup roasted peanuts
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup white sesame
¼ cup desiccated coconut
¼ cup peanut butter or sesame paste
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
For the dough:
¾ cup all purpose flour
1-½ tablespoons lard or butter, softened
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1-2 teaspoons water
- Prepare the filling. If you haven't, lightly toast peanut in a dry frying pan until golden and fragrant. Let cool. Place the peanuts on a towel and rub until most of the skin falls off. Crush with a rolling pin and place in a small bowl. With the same frying pan, toast white sesame until golden. Repeat with flour, fry over medium-low heat until pale golden. Place sesame, flour into the bowl of peanuts with the rest of the filling ingredients. Mix until the peanut butter or sesame paste is evenly mixed in. The mixture will barely hold its shape, but not a loose powdery mixture. Set aside.
- Make the dough. In a large mixing bowl, place flour and make a small well in the middle. Place in the egg, fat and sugar, and with circular motion, slowly mix in the flour from the center out. Add a teaspoon of water at a time, until a dough forms. Transfer the dough to the counter and knead until smooth. Set aside and rest for around 20 minutes.
- On the counter, take half the dough and roll out into around ⅛", and cut into 2" rounds. Cover the rest of the dough with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Take one circle and brush a bit of water (egg yolk) on the edge. put around half a teaspoon of filling in the center and fold over the dough. Starting from the corner, fold in the edges to form a twisted border. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
- Line a colander with 2 pieces of paper towel. In a large pot, heat around 2" of vegetable oil until 325℉/160℃. Fry until golden and place on the paper towel until cooled. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.