Cantonese Sticky Rice Dumplings (Zong zi)
It’s Duanwu Festival next week, which means it’s time to wrap some zong zi! The local traditions of eating zong zi was based upon the legend of Qu Yuan. He was a famous poet from the Chinese State of Chu during the Warring States. The highly esteemed and wise counsel fell victim to slander and was finally exiled by the King. Out of grief and despair, he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the 5th of May. The villagers made loud noises on the river and threw packets of sticky rice in river to prevent the fishes from eating his body. Nowadays, Chinese people race dragon boats and eat zong zi to commemorate the patriot.
There are 3 main types of Cantonese zong zi:
Salted pork dumpling 鹹肉粽 is the quintessential Cantonese rice dumplings found in dim sum restaurants, local delis, and homes. It is generally pyramid-shaped and is smaller in size. The basic recipe has glutinous rice, mung beans, pork belly and salted duck egg yolks.
Alkaline rice dumplings 鹼水粽 is a traditional Han-style snack and is generally sweeter in flavour. The glutinous rice has been treated with alkaline water and results in a jelly-like texture. My grandmother used to slice up old dumplings and fry them as after-school snacks for my mom.
Parcel dumplings 裹蒸粽 is a specialty from Zhaoqing city of Guangdong province. It is characterized by a rectangular-parcel shape. Traditionally wrapped in 冬葉 and steamed in a large metal vessels for more than 8 hours, it has a distinct flavour.
Like pasta in Italy, each Cantonese household has their own zong zi recipe. The principles are generally the same, but every family considers theirs the right way. It could be a specific seasoning to bring out the freshness of the ingredients, or how tightly they’re wrapped to allow just enough space for the rice to expand, or the exact moment to drop the wrapped dumplings in the water.
Since my mother grew up with 7 other sisters, there has been various debates concerning my grandmother’s zong zi traditions over the years. This recipe, among some fuzzy fragments, is truly a collective effort. My mother insists that grandma never marinated her zong zi fillings with soy sauce, an aunt was taught to wrap the dumplings so tight the rice is supposed to bulge around the edges. It was also one aunt’s favourite afternoon snack, and another’s excruciating afternoons spent cleaning used lotus leaves and drying them for the next year's zong zis.
Every June, I look forward to an afternoon chatting away with my mother, listening to yet another family anecdote while wrapping these dumplings. It is a little parcel of my family’s history, frugality, and simple pleasures, and I hope it will become a new tradition in each and every one of your homes.
Cantonese Salted Pork Zongzi 鹹肉粽
Makes 18 large rice dumplings.
This recipe belongs to my grandmother, the best home cooks I know, passed down to my mother and now me. The method is traditional and basic, rooted from humble conditions and limited resources of its time. The proportions and seasonings listed are adjusted for our lighter, home-style taste, feel free to modify to your liking. Make sure to read the recipe from start to finish, and visualizing the steps before making.
1 catty (600g/3 cups) mung beans
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon oil
1 catty (600g) pork belly
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon rose wine
3 teaspoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
18 salted duck egg yolks
82-85 sheets of bamboo leaves (with extras)
a bunch of straws for wrapping, or cotton twine
1.5 catty (900g/scant 5 cups) white glutinous rice
1.5 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1. Prepare the zongzi leaves and twines
Choose leaves that are wide and have straight veins. Zongzi leaf is a kind of bamboo leaf commonly found in Shanghainese grocers. Fresh ones are harder to source these days but dry ones are equally great in taste.
Rehydrate dry leaves by rinsing under cold water and wiping both sides with a towel to remove any dust or dirt. Submerge the entire leaf overnight, or until it is soft and pliable. There is no need to boil the leaves unless you want speed up the process. Leave them in the water until ready to use; they will become brittle again when dried out. Snip off around an inch on either ends, as the stiff parts of the leaves can puncture the dumpling. Cut 9-10 leaves in half lengthwise.
2. Marinate the fatty pork
Choose really fatty pork belly. This is not diet food. The fattier your pork the more lardy goodness permeates through the glutinous rice and mung beans for maximum flavour. Cut into 1-inch cubes, making sure each piece gets all the layers of fat and meat.
Marinate overnight with salt, five spice powder, rose cooking wine and white pepper. My grandmother never added extraneous ingredients like soy sauce or ginger in her marinate.
3. Prepare the grains and pulses
Choose mung beans that are already skinned to save yourself some time.
Soak overnight and drain away excess water. Mix with oil and salt and marinate for 4 hours.
Choose large and plump grains that are evenly white in colour, without impurities and fragrant when held to the nose.
Rinse a few times until the water is no longer milky. Soak 2-4 hours and drain away excess water. Mix with oil and salt and marinate for another 4 hours.
4. Prepare the Salty duck egg yolks
Hold the egg to a light and look for a distinct yolk; salty eggs with a blurry interior are inferior in quality. You may also buy yolks that have been separated.
Separate the eggs and save the egg whites for soups or other dishes.
5. Prepare optional fillings
Mushrooms, dried scallops, dried oysters, dried shrimp, chestnuts, etc are great additions to zong zi. As a general rule, soak any dried fillings for at least an hour. It is also important to note that zong zi with dried seafood and mushroom fillings tend to have a shorter shelf life.
6. Wrap zong zi
Take two leaves, smooth side on top, and hold them like an X. Place your thumb on the inner edge of the top leaf where they intersect, and fold it over at the center to form a cone. Hold the fold tight with your other thumb and index finger.
Fill the cone with around one to two tablespoon of glutinous rice, pressing the rice so it fills all the way to the tip and evenly around the sides. Follow with a tablespoon of mung beans, or more if you like. Make a small indentation on the mung beans. At this point, the weight of the rice and beans should be able to hold the cone in shape. Slide two more leaves between the layers on either sides. Place a piece of pork belly, egg yolk, and/or any fillings of your choice. Cover with more mung beans and glutinous rice.
Hold the cone with a bowled hand so the tip sits in between your middle and ring finger, and pinching the fold with your thumb and index finger. Cover the top with half a leaf. Fold down the leaves on the long side, pressing firmly to secure the shape. Similarly, fold the leaves on the short side, making sure nothing spills out and you get a tight seal. At any point if the leaves break, just place a new leaf over it and fold in to mold the pyramid shape.
Lastly, tie the pyramid with a twine, starting on one side of the pyramid and diagonally across. Make sure it is very tight so when boiled, the glutinous rice expands and has a fluffy, chewy texture. Finish with a live or dead knot, depending on whether you'll want to reuse the twines.
Like any dumplings, resist the urge to overfill, which you will learn sooner or later with experience. The method I use is called a five-pointed dumpling 五角粽, this is a great video for your reference. Notice there are some minor details that are different from what I described.
7. Boil and store zongzi
Submerge all the zongzi in a large pot of water and bring to boil. Cover and lower the heat to a slow boil. Cook zong zi for 3 hours, adding more boiling water to maintain the level of water.
Enjoy zong zi hot with soy sauce, dark soy sauce and/or sugar. Cool to room temperature and store in a cool place for up to a week. For longer storage, chill in the refrigerator for up to a month (shelf life may vary depending on your choice of filling) or freeze to enjoy them year round.
To reheat zong zi, boil the same way as above for 20 minutes. Allow to thaw and/or come to room temperature before boiling.