I have new-found respect for bak-zhang hawkers.
I’d never given the pyramid-shaped, glutinous-rice dumplings much thought — until I learned how to make them.
And boy, let me tell you, if you’re not naturally gifted in the ways of origami, you’re really in for it. (Unless you enjoy hearing the pitter-patter of rice beads skittering across the floor as clumps of braised pork pelt your toes.)
My Aunty Khar Imm had graciously agreed to spend two days teaching me how to make my grandmother’s bak-zhang (also known as “zongzi”). Yes, you read that right. Two days.
You spend one day prepping and braising the heart-stoppingly fatty pork in chopped garlic, shallots and a bunch of other ingredients. (I would go into specifics but am opting for the shameless promotion route instead — I’ll include more details in “A Tiger In The Kitchen,” slated for publication in February 2011.)
And then, once the pork has cooled and the flavors have had the chance to really get into one another’s business overnight, you begin with the wrapping.
For starters, you’ll have steeped the uncooked glutinous rice in cool water for at least five hours. You’ll also have soaked the dried bamboo leaves in water so they’re malleable.
I would be lying if I said I actually did any of this — my Aunty Khar Imm woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get all this done before I showed up, mired in a fog of sleepiness, at the (to me) early hour of 10 a.m. (And, yes, I would agree that the Ghiradelli chocs I brought her from New York were not adequate thanks.)
First, you take two bamboo leaves and line them up horizontally, and then you bend them in at the middle and twist one side upwards so you wind up with both ends pointing up and a little triangular hollow at the base, which is where you’ll place the rice.
Since it’s a little likely you have no idea what I just told you to do, just look at this picture below:
Next, you scoop rice into the hollow you’ve created — about a tablespoon or two, at the most, should suffice.
Then you add a layer of braised pork.
Aunty Khar Imm advises really piling it on at this stage (at least four to five tablespoons) so you’ll have some meat with each bite of rice. However, we had put so much effort into prepping the meat that I, sub-consciously, was rather “giam siap” (Teochew for stingy) in using it up, to quote my aunt. I can still hear the clucks and cries of “Mai ah-ne giam siap lah!” (“Don’t be so stingy, lah!”) in my head.
In the end, she was right – we had a ton of meat left after the rice was gone because I’d rationed our precious pork so much.
Next, you fill the rest of the hollow with rice, pat it down as firmly as you can, grab the bottom of the pyramid with one hand …
… and use your other hand to fold over the leaves so they cover the rice. Using your right hand, press the pyramid firmly into the leaves so the dumpling is wrapped as tightly as possible and no rice escapes.
Then you take the top leaves and twist them around the pyramid as tightly as you can, wrap some string around it very tightly and tie a knot.
Two hours and 42 bak-zhangs later, the finished product:
After boiling the zhangs in a big pot of water with a knot of 10 pandan leaves (a tropical leaf that has a vanilla-like scent) for one and a half hours, they’re ready for dinner.
~~ The End ~~