Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Chinese Rice Dumpling Festival

From an early age, I remember feasting on a pyramid shaped glutinous rice pillow with savory stuffing hidden within it. This happened once a year on a date which I can never remember. I was taught that the rice dumplings were called "ham yoke chung" and later learned from friends that it was also known as "bak chang".

Bak chang bought from a colleague
I never knew the significance of this festival. It was a curiosity to me that the dumplings were shaped like a pyramid by wrapping the ingredients in bamboo leaves and boiling them. To me, I felt that it was much simpler to shape them into a rectangle or cube (which later I learned, did exist - the kind of rice dumplings which were wrapped in lotus leaves).

A couple of years back, when I visited my grandma, I discovered that the rice dumplings weren't just confined to Chinese culture - Vietnamese had them too. And they made them during Lunar New Year or "Tet", as they call it. The ones grandma made were squarish (banh chung) and had a greenish tinge when cut open. From what I think I recalled, the taste was different, although they were also savory.

Basically, the "bak chang" that we find here in Malaysia is made of uncooked glutinous rice pre-fried with garlic oil and dark soya sauce, and layered with not-quite-done braised pork (three-layer pork cuts or those with a bit of fats), salted egg yolk, chestnut, black-eyed peas, mung bean, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp and dried scallops (optional). All this is wrapped in a dried bamboo leaf, softened by hot water and then tied up with a hemp string (looks like dried lalang to me). The art of making these rice dumplings lies in the wrapping skill, where it is secure enough (but not too tight) to survive the boiling session.

The reason I roughly know what's involved in making "bak chang" is because mum and I attempted to make them in 2011 with some level of success and non-success. The taste was there but the wrapping was challenging. YouTubing the instructions did help a bit but I think this sort of things are meant to be perfected with practice. This is our the photo evidence that we actually made them!

Layering the goodies between the glutinous rice

First batch of bak chang in the boiling stage
There are a number of different types of "bak chang" but I am not too conversant with them as I am not really a "bak chang" enthusiast! There is a nyonya one and a Cantonese one. The difference? I'm not too sure either. All I know is they taste good - especially the ones with more fats!

Anyway, not until today did I realise that there is actually a story behind this festival. I heard the story from a colleague and Googled up more information for better understanding.

The rice dumpling festival is actually called Duanwu Festival (which means Double Fifths) or also know as Dragon Boat Festival. The festival is celebrated by the Chinese and other Sino-asian communities on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Lunar calendar.

Legend has it that Qu Yuan, a minister in the State of Chu, one of the seven states during China's first feudal dynasty, had supported the decision to oppose the powerful State of Qin. He was slandered by an aristocrat and the King had exiled Qu Yuan. In exile, Qu Yuan continued to express his love and passion for his homeland through poetry and was is remembered as one of the great poets in China's history. In 278 BC, on the fifth day of the fifth month, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo river - he would rather die than see his homeland taken over by the State of Qin.

Upon hearing of Qu Yuan's demise, the local people set out throwing food such as the rice dumplings into the river in the hope that the fish would eat the rice and spare Qu Yuan's body of harm. Fishermen tried to search for Qu Yuan's body in an attempt to retrieve the national hero's corpse - but to no avail. It was said that some locals had rowed out on their boats shouting and making noise to scare away the fish and animals - this is said to be the beginning of the Dragon Boat race.

And so, what we have today is a celebration in remembrance of a nationalistic poet who had taken his life over 2700 years ago.

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