Dumpling-making lessons during pandemic

Chai removing cooked sticky rice dumplings from the stove after boiling them at her home in Johor Baru. — THOMAS YONG/The Star

WITH the annual Dumpling Festival just around the corner, sellers of glutinous rice dumpling, or “zong zi” as it is called in Mandarin, have been busy meeting orders for the rice parcels in Johor Baru.

Home-based dumpling seller Elyn Chai, 35, was relieved that sales started picking up last week, as it was initially quite slow-going when she put the word out over social media about a month ago.

“I now produce up to 300 pieces of dumplings a day, using about 18kg of glutinous rice.

“For the past two weeks, I made about 400 pieces a day with help from my mother-in-law.

“I noticed that about 40% of orders this year are from new customers compared to last year.

“This time around, there are more orders from people in

Johor Baru and Skudai as well as other districts such as Kulai and Kota Tinggi.

“Due to the lockdown, I only deliver the dumplings to customers living nearby.

“For those who live more than 10km away, I arrange for e-hailing delivery service, ” she told StarMetro.

Chai and her 60-year-old mother-in-law Tay Siew Choon usually start preparing and pre-cooking the ingredients such as glutinous rice, dried shrimps, dried oysters, mushrooms, salted egg yolks and black-eyed peas at 4am in order to complete the orders by 2pm.

Both women prepare the ingredients just before parcelling them into dumplings to maintain freshness and taste.

“Since I was free at home last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I started learning it after deciding to sell home-made zong zi online.

“It was not easy in the beginning as my dumplings were not wrapped properly in the bamboo leaves and the rice would leak through the seams. I almost gave up, ” said Chai who learnt dumpling-making from Tay.

“It took me about two weeks of continuous practice to get the technique right, ” she said, adding that they managed to sell over 4, 000 dumplings last year.

Though sales have dropped by about 30% this year, Chai said she had made new friends through selling the festive dish.

The Dumpling Festival is alternatively known as Dragon Boat Festival.

Carol Chin Pei Fon, 48, owner of a dumpling speciality shop in Taman Johor Jaya, said her overall sales dropped by about 30% due to the closure of the border with Singapore since March last year.

A large number of her customer base, she said, were Singaporeans and Malaysians working there.

“So I started to promote my dumplings online, which attracted many new customers, including some from Kuala Lumpur and Kedah, ” she said.

Chin, who sells rice dumplings all year round and has been in the business for 24 years, said the tightened standard operating procedures under the lockdown also affected her business as she was unable to distribute her dumplings to morning and night markets, and coffeeshops.

The economic slowdown also led to her decision not to produce her special RM21 giant dumplings this year, which were three times larger than the standard-sized dumplings.

Chin makes 11 types of dumplings for sale.

“I think customers are ordering for the sake of celebrating the occasion and as a prayer offering at home, ” she said, adding that previously people also bought the dumplings as gifts for their loved ones and friends.

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