CHINESE rice dumpling or zongzi, commonly known as chang among locals, has a long tradition steeped in history.
Legend has it that poet and minister Qu Yuan, who served during the Zhou Dynasty, was wrongly accused of treason and committed suicide by drowning.
The locals could not retrieve his body.
Afraid that it would be devoured by river creatures, they threw rice dumplings into the river.
From then on, the Dumpling Festival was held annually to remember him.
The 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 chang is the alkaline dumpling 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, creates 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 locally as air abu soda and available at bakery supply shops.
For 200g of rice, only half a tablespoon of lye is used.
Any less may not be sufficient to cure the rice and any more may cause the rice to taste like soap.
The red bean paste recipe is from my mother, who would melt the sugar in the oil to caramelise it before adding the red bean puree.
This recipe makes a lot more paste than is needed for the dumplings, so the rest can be stored for mooncakes and steamed buns.
I also use it to stuff glutinous rice balls for the winter solstice festival.
Rice dumplings need to cool down completely for it to attain a glossy surface, allowing the wrappings to come off easily.
Although it can be enjoyed on its own, some people like to serve it with a drizzle of palm sugar.
Alkaline dumplings with red bean paste filling
200g glutinous rice
½ tbsp lye solution
20 bamboo leaves
10 hemp strings
Red bean paste
500g adzuki beans
6 cups cold water
1 cup cooking oil
400g granulated sugar
For the bean paste, wash the adzuki beans until water runs clear. If boiling over the stove, soak overnight, then simmer over medium heat for two 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 caramelise 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 2cm 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 four 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 two 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 forms a tetrahedron-shaped pyramid. Fold the excess flap 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 an hour and 15 minutes.
When cooked, remove dumplings from the pot and hang to drip off excess water. Cool completely, for at least an hour. Store at room temperature for no more than three days, or in the refrigerator for a week.