Chinese rice dumpling or zongzi has a long tradition steeped in history. According to legend poet and minister Qu Yuan, who served during the Zhou Dynasty was wrongly accused of treason, committed suicide by drowning in the Milou River. The local people, who admired him tried to retrieve his body, which when it was not found, threw rice dumplings into the river so that the fish would eat those instead of Qu Yuan’s body. Thereafter, the Dumpling Festival is held annually to commemorate him.
These rice dumplings are wrapped in bamboo leaves and usually contain meat, nuts and beans. There are also vegetarian versions that may contain meat substitutes such as mushrooms, gluten or bean curd. Traditionally, the vegetarian option for zongzi are alkaline dumplings, or gan sui joong.
Alkaline dumpling is so unique in texture and flavour that it is quite difficult to describe to anyone unfamiliar with it. The lye solution that is used to cure the rice produces dumplings with a distinctive yellow colour, translucent appearance, springy texture, and a subtly pungent flavour.
There is an exact science in using lye solution, sometimes called lye water or alkali water. It is bottled as air abu soda in Malaysia and is available at any bakery supply shop. For 200 grams of rice, we use only half a tablespoon of lye. Any less may not be sufficient to cure the rice, any more may cause the rice to taste like soap.
This red bean paste recipe was from my mom, who taught me to make it for Shanghai pancakes. It starts with melting sugar in the oil to make caramel before adding the red bean puree. It is different from my mother-in-law’s recipe that doesn’t use caramel.
This recipe makes a lot more paste than is needed for the dumplings, so the excess can be stored away for other purposes such as mooncakes and steamed buns. I also use it to stuff glutinous rice balls for the winter solstice festival and I’m sure you’ll find many uses for it in a Chinese household.
Rice dumplings cannot be eaten while it is hot off the stove. They need to cool down completely and excess liquid drip off so that they can harden a bit and attain a glossy surface that allows the wrappings to be peeled off cleanly from the dumplings.
Although it can be enjoyed on its own, some people like to serve it with a drizzle of palm sugar.
This recipe first appeared in The Star Online > Food
- 200 g glutinous rice
- ½ tbsp lye solution
- 20 pcs bamboo leaves
- 10 pcs hemp strings
- Red Bean Paste:
- 500 g adzuki beans
- 6 cups cold water
- 1 cup cooking oil
- 400 g granulated sugar
- Wash the adzuki beans until water runs clear. If boiling over the stove, soak overnight, then simmer over medium heat for 2 hours until soft.
- Use immediately if boiling in a pressure cooker for 40 minutes.
- With a hand blender, puree red beans until they become a smooth paste. If using a regular blender, add sufficient water to form a smooth paste.
- Heat oil in a frying pan and add sugar to melt and caramelize in the oil.
- When sugar has turned a light golden brown, add pureed red beans and stir until the oil and caramel have combined into the red bean paste.
- Turn off heat and allow to cool completely before rolling out 10 balls of red bean paste about 2 centimeters in diameter.
- Store excess bean paste in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer for two months.
- Wash glutinous rice until water runs clear. Soak rice in cold water overnight or at least 4 hours.
- Then drain the rice in a colander or wire sieve and let it drip dry for 30 minutes.
- Finally stir in lye solution and let it sit for 30 minutes but no more than 2 hours.
- Scrub the bamboo leaves and hemp strings with a brush to get rid of dust and dirt.
- Place leaves and strings in a pot with sufficient water to submerge and bring to a boil.
- Then set aside to soak in the water until needed.
- To assemble the dumplings, overlap two sheets of bamboo leaves and create a cone shape in the middle of the leaves.
- Fill the cone with one teaspoon of rice, stuff with a ball of red bean paste, then cover with another teaspoon of rice.
- Push the cone into a triangular shape and cover with the big flap of leaf until it is formed into a tetrahedron-shaped pyramid.
- Fold the excess flap of leaf against the side of the pyramid and tie firmly with a hemp string.
- When all the dumplings are properly wrapped, bring a big pot of water to a boil.
- Then submerge the dumplings in the water, cover with a lid and simmer over medium heat for 1 hour 15 minutes.
- When cooked, remove dumplings from the pot and hang to drip off excess water and to cool completely, for at least 1 hour.
- Store at room temperature for no more than 3 days, or in the refrigerator for a week.