15 June 2018

Bak Chang 肉粽 ~ Glutinous Rice Dumpling

The Chinese Duan Wu Festival (端午节)or commonly known as Dragon Boat Festival is upcoming next Monday! There's a story behind how this festival came about (to commemorate a patriotic poet/exiled official by the name of Qu Yuan in the warring states period of China (just google to find out more).

In Singapore, the festival is typically celebrated with dragon boat race and eating Bak Chang aka glutinous rice dumplings (it could be more elaborate in China). Nowadays, many people have long forgotten about the significance of this festival and affectionately call this day Rice Dumpling Day without knowing the true meaning behind it.

My knowledge of rice dumpling is very limited, I only know a few variations or flavours, such as Hokkien savoury rice dumpling which typically includes pork belly, mushroom, dried shrimp and chestnut; Nyonya sweet rice dumpling which includes minced pork and candied winter melon; Kee Chang or Alkaline rice dumpling which is basically tasteless and eaten with coconut palm sugar syrup. These days, there are of course more flavours and additional ingredients such as salted egg yolk, abalone, scallop and sweet ones with red beans etc etc.

My mum learnt to wrap the Hokkien-style bak chang from my paternal grandmother and auntie, and from there she adapted her own taste for the ingredients and texture of the glutinous rice. My mum's bak chang is lighter on the palate; the glutinous rice is softer in texture and less salty so I can still taste the aroma from the bamboo leaf. Each ingredient is pre-cooked separately so each has its own flavour/aroma yet complement one another in the dumpling.

That said, every household has their own recipes and personal flavours but since young I grew up with my mum's bak chang so I'm very used to this particular taste and texture. So much so that I'm quite picky when it comes to bak chang. Usually commercial ones don't impress me much as they tend to be overwhelming in taste and heavy on the palate. I like my bak chang small, less seasonings, less rice and more ingredients.

Anyways, all these years I have not bothered to learn how to make bak chang as my mum would wrap a few dozens for giveaways. However she has stopped in the recent years. So I reckoned I ought to pick up the skill from her, else this heritage cuisine might be lost in my family! Haha. Sounds so serious.

So last year during the Duan Wu Festival period, I asked my mum to teach me how to make bak chang from scratch. She already prepared most of the ingredients, and showed me how to fry the glutinous rice and wrap the bak chang the proper way. As with folks of her generation, everything was done with estimation, so I simply asked her for the ingredients and method and try to figure out the quantity on another day. Frankly cooking is the easier part, the tough part is the wrapping and I'm lousy at wrapping! I remembered I took like 10 mins to wrap one bak chang, as I was trying to figure out how to shape and secure it properly. I even asked my mum to buy a full set of ingredients for me to practise (and figure out the recipes). As usual I procrastinated till late November (before my shift to Thailand) and I think I only wrapped 18 pieces, and some of the bak chang turned out quite ugly. But at least I figured out the quantity of ingredients and noted the proper steps.

Few weeks ago I was back in SG and the shops were beginning to sell bak chang materials/ingredients, just the right time! Ok, yep I brought back the key stuff and did my wrapping two days ago! My second solo attempt in wrapping bak chang \(".)/

My target this time is 3 dozens as I intend to gift them to my girlfriends here (if the bak chang turns out good). Preparation work started on Tuesday night, where I soaked some of the ingredients first. Spent Wednesday morning pre-cooking all the ingredients and finally started wrapping and cooking in the afternoon. By the time I completed 30 pieces of bak chang, it was evening. Underestimated the quantity of glutinous rice and I still had some leftover ingredients. Was in a dilemma whether to prepare an additional batch of glutinous rice as I was very tired already and my kitchen was like a war zone. In the end, I decided to push ahead and made another 9 pieces. So it's literally a full day's work and I managed to wrap 39 pieces of bak chang in total!

I'm quite happy with my attempt this time, most of the bak chang turn out well and resemble the triangular shapes. LOL! However, I was a little inconsistent, the first batch had slightly more rice than ingredients and as I progressed, managed to adjust such that there were more ingredients or at least balanced amount.

Here are the key ingredients for bak chang.

Dried mushroom (Japanese shiitake) - I bought the smaller ones (from SG) so that I can wrap the whole piece in each dumpling without cutting. Wash and soak them overnight.

Dried shrimp - These were bought from Laem Chabang, a coastal port north of Pattaya. I chose the large ones to have more bite. Wash and soak in hot water for 15-20 mins.

Pork belly - I bought them from the supermarket here, they came in long strips of about 1.5 inches width. Remove the skin (else too tough) and bones (if any). Cook the strips in a broth water (recipe below) till just cooked (able to poke through meat with chopsticks), remove and cut into bite-size pieces. *Strain and reserve the broth water for later use.

Dried chestnut - These were bought in whole pieces from SG, imported from Italy. My mum bought Canadian ones last year but I couldn't find. Boil the dried chestnut and soak overnight, the next day remove the tough brownish membrane bits from the chestnut.

Glutinous rice - If possible buy a special breed called Rat Tooth (鼠牙)only available during this period. It's more refined and softer in texture. Otherwise, any good grade of glutinous rice is fine. Wash and soak for 2-3hrs.

Pre-cooking for the ingredients (detail recipes below):

Pork belly - stir-fry the pork belly pieces with shallot oil, five-spice powder, coriander powder, white pepper, salt and broth, till fragrant.

Dried chestnut - braise the chestnut in broth water (used to cook pork belly strips) till soft (not mushy).

Dried mushroom - Stir-fry the mushroom with shallot oil, coriander powder, five spice powder, pepper, dark soy sauce, sugar and salt and braise in broth water.

Dried shrimp - Stir-fry the shrimp in shallot oil, coriander powder and white pepper till fragrant.

Glutinous rice - stir-fry the rice in shallot oil, season with salt, white pepper and dar soy sauce (for colour), to taste. Fry till fragrant and slightly sticky.

Bamboo leaf and string - wash and soak in water till ready to use. Choose the mid-size ones, trim edges if necessary.

Once the mise en place is done, the wrapping which is the tough part begins!

Here are three videos I took last year, my mum giving tutorial on how to wrap the bak chang. They are now my previous go-to guide!

Bak Chang 肉粽 ~ Glutinous Rice Dumpling
(makes around 39-40 pieces)

(A) Pork Belly

  • 6 strips pork belly (about 880g after removing skin & some fats, 1.5 inches in width)
  • Broth water: 5 cloves garlic, 1 spring onion, 1 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp dark soy sauce, 1.25L water
  • Seasonings: 2 tbsp shallot oil, 1/2 tsp five spice powder, 1/2 tsp coriander powder, 1/4 tsp white pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, 8 tbsp broth water
  1. Wash the pork belly, remove skin and bottom bone layer (if any).
  2. Place pork belly into a pot, add the broth water ingredients, bring to boil and cook till chopstick is able to go through the meat (just cooked).
  3. Remove from broth water and cut the pork into bite-size pieces (about 45 pcs)
  4. Strain the broth water and set aside for use later.
  5. In a frying pan, add shallot oil and stir-fry the pork bites till slightly browned. Add five spice powder, coriander powder, white pepper and salt and stir till well-mixed. Add broth water and simmer for 5 mins. Dish and set aside.

(B) Chestnut 

  • 250g dried chestnut (around 45 pcs)
  • 2 cups broth water (from cooking the pork belly)
  1. Wash and place chestnut into a small pot. Add enough water to cover more than 1 inch of the chestnut. Bring the water to boil. Off heat, cover and let the chestnut soak overnight.
  2. The next day, remove the tough bits of brownish membrane in the chestnut.
  3. Place the chestnut in a small pot, add broth water and cook till the chestnut turns soft (not too soft). Dish and set aside.
(C) Dried Shrimp
  • 70g dried shrimp (around 90 pcs)
  • Seasonings: 2 tsp shallot oil, pinch of coriander powder and white pepper
  1. Wash the dried shrimp a few times. Soak in hot water for 15-20 mins. Clean throughly and drain.
  2. In a frying pan, add shallot oil and stir-fry the shrimp with the coriander powder and white pepper till fragrant. Dish and set aside.
(D) Mushroom
  • 45pcs dried mushroom
  • Seasonings: 1 tbsp shallot oil, 1/2 tsp coriander powder, 1/2 tsp five-spice powder, 1/4 tsp white pepper, 1 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp dark soy sauce, 1 cup broth water
  1. Wash and soak mushroom in water overnight.
  2. The next day, drain water and squeeze dry the mushroom slightly.
  3. In a pot, add shallot oil and stir-fry the mushroom with the seasonings till fragrant. Add broth water and braise for 15 mins (or liquid almost becomes dry). Dish and set aside.

(E) Glutinous Rice

  • 1.85kg glutinous rice
  • Seasonings: 10 tbsp shallot oil, salt, white pepper, dark soy sauce (to taste)
  1. Wash and soak the rice for 2-3 hrs. Drain.
  2. In a large wok or frying pan, add shallot oil and drained rice. Stir-fry till rice is shiny and coated with oil. Season with salt, white pepper and dark soy sauce. Stir-fry till seasonings well-mixed and rice is slightly sticky.
  3. ***Salt and pepper is to taste (take a few grains of rice to try, I added around 5-6 tsp of salt). Dark soy sauce is for colour, add tsp by tsp till desired colour tone. My wok is not big enough, I had to fry in 2-3 batches. After frying the batches, I mix all the rice together in an extra large mixing bowl and mix them well. Set aside.
(F) Bamboo leaf and string
  • 90-100 pcs bamboo leaves
  • 40-50 string (not sure what string they are, they come together in the pack, maybe banana string)
  1. Wash and soak the bamboo leaves and string till ready to use.
  2. Tie the string in bundles of 10 for easy counting and cooking. Hang the bundle using hook at height level for ease of tying the bak chang.
Assembly and cooking
  1. Take 2 bamboo leaves, place them opposite sides of each other.
  2. Twist the leaves to become a "cup". Add about 1 tbsp of glutinous rice into the cup, add pork, mushroom, dried shrimp and chestnut. Add another 1+ tbsp of glutinous rice to cover the ingredients, drizzle 1-2 tsp of chestnut water.
  3. Wrap up the rice dumpling and securely it tightly using the string. 
  4. Once 10 pieces of dumping per bundle is completed, they can be sent for cooking. To cook, add  water to a large pot (around 2/3 depth), bring to boil and add 1 tbsp of salt. Lower the bundle of dumplings into the pot and boil on medium heat for about 1 hour (make sure the water covers all the rice dumplings). Once done remove from water and hang to cool slightly (optional) before eating.
  5. *** My cooking pot is small, can only boil 10 pieces of dumplings at one time. For bigger pots, may be able to cook larger quantity, but avoid overcrowding the pot to ensure dumplings are properly cooked.
  6. *** Rice dumplings are best eaten warm. Steam for 10-15 mins before eating. They can be stored in freezer for up to 1 month or fridge for a week. Thaw before steaming.
*Shallot Oil
Shallot oil is a key ingredient in bak chang making. It's available at supermarkets but quite easy to prepare at home. 
  • 150g shallot, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup cooking oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  1. Add cooking oil and salt to small pot on medium low heat, add sliced shallots and fry till shallot turns golden brown. Watch closely towards the last few minutes as the shallots can get burnt easily.
  2. Drain and set aside oil for use. For the crispy shallot, it can be enjoyed as a condiment for stir-fried vegetables, fried rice, noodles etc etc.

My very first batch of bak chang fresh from the pot two days ago. Quite pleased that they turned out reasonably well =D

Gifted half of the bak chang to my girlfriends and they loved it! The hb and I have also been having bak chang for breakfast for the past two days. LOL! The rest are kept in the freezer and we will eat them whenever there's a craving!

Overall, really happy with how my bak chang turns out, most of them look reasonably nice =D Although it's a lot of hard work and effort involved, the satisfaction is immense. Hopefully I will be able to practise making bak chang at least once a year! Or maybe next year I should learn to make Nyonya Chang?

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