Bak Chang (肉粽; Meat Dumplings)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

My mother made two types of 粽子 every year, kee chang and bak chang. The former is quite straightforward; it's just glutinous rice and lye water wrapped in bamboo leaves. Bak chang, however, is extremely varied in ingredients, seasoning, cooking method, and shape depending on which part of China your family is from. For us – we're Teochews – there're two types indigenous to our culture. The more elaborate type, called 双烹, has a small ball of sweet red bean paste wrapped in leaf lard. My mother always did the simpler type without the sweet red bean paste. The filling is 100% savory with fatty pork belly, chestnuts, mushrooms, dried prawns and fried shallots.

Our annual dumpling do always started a couple of weeks before the dumpling festival on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. In the evening after we all got our housework or homework out of the way, adults and kids alike would sit at the dining table and pick out the non-glutinous grains in the glutinous rice. Say what? Say my mother bought glutinous rice which had a little bit of non-glutinous rice mixed in it. For bak chang, that didn't matter. For kee chang, however, the non-glutinous grains wouldn't cook in the alkaline lye water. Hence, these had to be picked out one by one. Amazing, eh? The amount of rice we managed to sieve through would determine how many kee chang were made. You can still buy impure glutinous rice nowadays but I presume no one uses it for kee chang anymore.

The actual process of making the dumplings was spread over two days. On the first day, the bamboo leaves and dumpling strings were sorted, soaked and washed. The rice would be soaked too, as were the mushrooms, dried prawns and dried chestnuts. On the second day, the filling and rice for bak chang were stir-fried and wrapped, then boiled 3-4 hours. Whilst the savory meat dumplings were being cooked – over a wood fire so as to save on gas! – Mum did the kee chang. These were much easier than bak chang since there wasn't any filling, and the rice wasn't stir-fried.

Mum was quite proud of her bak chang. Every year, she gave some to a few relatives and they gave her theirs in return. She'd taste each and everyone's dumplings versus her own, and then she'd quietly declare herself the winner of the dumpling making contest. It was a weird contest that the contestants, other than my mother, didn't even know existed. And there was only one judge, who was the only contestant who knew about the contest.

One year, the day after making dumplings, I found my mother looking like a panda with dark circles around her eyes. She hadn't slept well the night before, she said. What happened? Mum's bak chang wasn't as good as in previous years. Why not? Because she didn't stir-fry the glutinous rice. She was getting on in years and wasn't as sprightly as before. So she simplified things a bit, skipping what she'd thought wasn't a crucial step, and made the bak chang without stir-frying the rice. Hence, the sleepless night. And hence – despite everyone going 'NOOOOO! NO WAY!' – she made a second batch of bak chang, this time with the rice properly stir-fried. It was the only time she did two batches in one year. And that's why it's been burnt into my brain: fry the friggin' rice!

Here's how I enjoyed last weekend, frying rice and other stuff:

(Recipe for 25 dumplings)

25 large and 25 small bamboo leaves
check that leaves aren't broken or have holes; soak overnight in enough water to cover, weighed down with something heavy; wipe clean and rinse thoroughly
25 dumpling strings or plastic raffia, each about 90 cm long
if using dumpling strings, soak overnight with bamboo leaves; rinse till water runs clear and wring dry; tie to a pole with a slip knot; rest pole between back of two chairs or maybe kitchen cabinets and a table
120 ml vegetable oil
200 g shallots
peel, rinse and slice thinly
70 g dried prawns
rinse and soak overnight in 4 tbsp water; squeeze dry, reserving liquid
70 g Chinese dried mushrooms
rinse and soak overnight in 2/3 cup water; squeeze dry, reserving liquid; cut bite-sized into 50 pieces, reserving stems for other dishes
50 dried chestnuts (about 200 g)
soak overnight in enough water to cover by 5 cm; remove peel with toothpick; trim black spots if any; rinse and drain
550 g pork belly
rinse and cut bite-sized into 50 pieces
3 tbsp light soya sauce
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp sugar
½ tsp dark soya sauce
1 kg long-grain glutinous rice
rinse till water runs clear; soak overnight in enough water to cover by 5 cm; drain thoroughly
3 tbsp light soya sauce
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground white pepper
¼ tsp sugar
½ tsp chicken powder

Fry shallots in vegetable oil over medium till lightly golden. Turn off heat. Continue stirring till residual heat dissipates. Remove shallots to a colander. Remove half of the oil to a bowl.

Turn on heat to maximum possible. Fry dried prawns till lightly golden. Add mushrooms and stir till heated through. Add chestnuts and stir till heated through. Add pork and stir-fry till slightly brown. Season with light soya sauce, salt and sugar. Stir till absorbed. Drizzle with water drained from dried prawns. Stir till dry. Drizzle with half of water drained dried mushrooms. Stir till dry. Drizzle with remaining mushroom water. Again, stir till dry. Add dark soya sauce and ground white pepper. Stir through. Taste a small piece of pork that should be cooked through. It should taste slightly more salty than how you'd like it. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Transfer to a bowl. Drizzle 2 tbsp water around wok. Stir to deglaze. Turn off heat. Add the water to the pork mixture. Sit till absorbed. Add half of fried shallots. Stir till evenly mixed.

Wash wok and heat till dry. Place remaining shallot oil in the wok and heat till just smoking. Add glutinous rice, then remaining fried shallots. Stir till thoroughly heated. Season with light soya sauce, salt, sugar, chicken powder and ground white pepper. Stir till well mixed. Taste (but do not eat because rice is still raw) and adjust seasoning if necessary. Rice should be a bit saltier than usual because seasoning will be diluted by boiling water. Transfer to a bowl.

Wrap and tie dumplings as shown in video (4:04 - 5:02). Boil 3 hours in enough water to cover. Unwrap one and see if the rice is soft. If it isn't, boil another 15-3o minutes.

Remove dumplings from water. May be eaten immediately if you like. Or leave to drain and cool down, then serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers and steam to heat through before eating.

🐯 The bak chang would be a bit smaller than the ones you buy. If you make them regular size, you may get only about 20 pieces instead of 25.


Kenneth Choong said...

Whoa! I really want to try making these now. They don't look toooooo hard ... 

Shuhan said...

I really want to EAT these now. They look like so much work, what do you mean not hard!  Even my mum gets lazy and just gets them off my grandma/aunt. The only time she made them was when she got into a bit of a squabble with them.

(KT do you know how to make nonya ba zhang? it's my favourite.)

KT said...

Repeat after me: "Cooking is play, not work. Cooking is play, not work. Cooking is . . . NOT WORK . . . .' Just kidding. I know you know that.

Nonya ba chang? Just add coriander seeds, sugar and candied winter melon, no? That's all I know, I'm afraid.

KT said...

I think it's less work than Mrs Wee's Mee Siam. That one is a real killer.

The difficult part isn't the amount of work but the quality of the ingredients. Because the seasoning is very simple – no coriander seeds, five-spice powder or much sugar – the chestnuts, mushrooms and dried prawns must be of top quality; the pork must be fat; and the bamboo leaves must have a grassy fragrance.

dumpuhlings said...

 "The bamboo leaves must have a grassy fragrance."

Agree. Thought your leaves looked fresh. You must have bamboo plants in your garden. Nothing quite like the leafy sweetness of fresh bamboo leaf wraps which is adsorbed by the glutinous rice in the cooking process. Try making dumplings with glutinous pearl rice if you can find it, they're even more delectable.

Shuhan said...

The folding isn't easy too, is it! But yes, agree, ingredients are very important in cooking. That's the most impt thing my mum taught me. Always use the best of what you can afford and prepare it with love of course, and your food will definitely taste good. Oh, second mos timpt, that food always tastes good when you're hungry so serve hungry people hur hur.

KT said...

The folding is a bit like learning how to cycle. You keep fumbling and then, suddenly, you get it. And once it's learnt, you never forget.

When all the stars and ingredients align, my mum's bak chang taste like those from Amoy Street food centre ( There's one important difference though: Amoy Street's dumplings make me thirsty as hell.

KT said...

Thanks for the tip. I will keep my eyes peeled for glutinous pearl rice.

strawapple said...

i just read through almost all of the recipes on your blog and i'm feeling so nostalgic and inspired. my teochew grandma used to make so many of the foods you wrote about and i can just taste them while i'm reading through your recipes. i miss her food so much. thank you!

KT said...

You're welcome, strawapple. There's a book, Marion Seow's Soya & Spice, which has some very old school Teochew recipes, the type which only older Teochews would know, like sweet noodles with poached eggs. My mother used to make that for my birthday.

rosa said...

Hi! I just came across your blog. Thanks for being so generous with your recipes and stories!!!!

PF said...

I just found your blog, and I am so hooked on all your videos. I have been living away for the last 15 years, now I have a good resource to curb my cravings when I need to. Made me want to get up and cook something. Thanks for sharing, really great tips, and very witty writing :)

Cinmiley Yap said...

Love your blog and great recipes!

nuri said...

Are bamboo leaves easy to get in Singapore. I am a Malay. I am not sure if I had seen bamboo leaves before. Anyway, since I can't eat pork. I will use chicken or beef. Thou maybe it won't taste as good as original. Nuri

Lizzie Slothouber said...

mmmm ooh you've got me all excited now ... I'm looking forward to trying to make this with my Sister ... you have resurrected our love of cooking traditional Malaysian/Singaporean chinese foods ... thank you sooo much ... hugs.. lizzieS * Perth, WA *

lara said...

Hi KT,
where do you get the bamboo leaves in Singapore? the ones my mum got were small and i had difficulty wrapping the dumplings. btw, thanks for your video-a great help to amateurs like me!


KT said...

Hi lara, got mine at a market. Cheers.

Rully said...

You have an awesome website ever! I made bak chang, I used chicken instead and didn't put chestnut and it came good, except the way I wrapped bak chang is still learning process, LOL, but I'm getting better now. It lots of work but it worthed. I'm Indonesian, live in US so nice to know you. Thanks for your tips baking lessons :)

Wei Lin said...

This is oddly similar to my grandma's. The only diff is we preboil the chestnut, cut the meat n mushrooms a whole lot smaller and sweeten the filling with a good amount of candied wintermelon that's finely chopped plus a dash of coriander powder. N we omit the chicken powder. So yea. Overall quite close to my grandma's!!

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