This week, Amanda’s Friendly Friday Challenge is NOSTALGIA. For me, nostalgia is always wrapped up with food. My fondest memories of Singapore are inevitably tied to food and the Chinese holidays associated with them. One such holiday just recently passed.
June 25th was Dragon Boat Festival and if wasn’t for Covid19 Chinese communities everywhere would have celebrated the holiday with Dragon Boat races and rice dumplings. Unfortunately most races were cancelled this year. But we still had dumplings!
In Singapore I learned to love rice dumplings or bak chang. as they’re called there. In Hong Kong they’d be called joong and in Beijing, zongzi. For the weeks leading up to June 25th, stalls selling chang would pop up in the Chinese markets. Clusters of chang would hang in bunches from racks and you’d order them cold or cooked.
Similar in concept to Mexican tamales but radically different in taste, bak chang is made by wrapping glutinous rice around savory or sweet fillings, tying it up with banana leaves and steaming for hours. Different varieties of chang have varying combinations of meat, sausage, salted egg yolks, shrimp, beans and chestnuts. Although I tried, I haven’t tasted all of the varieties. I am a bit sticky about my sticky rice and having found a type I liked, I kept buying it over and over again. I like the Cantonese style made with pork, lap cheong sausage and no egg yolks.
Early on in Singapore, I signed up for a cooking class on how to make bak chang. This was before I even knew what it was. It was a one day workshop with most of the work done ahead of time by our hosts Julia and Rosalind. The prep work vastly accelerated the process. Making chang is normally a 2 to 3 day endeavour with a final cooking time of 7 hours!
Watching the process was fascinating. Learning to do it myself was a disaster. There is a technique to folding, filling and tying the leaves to make these little dumplings. In less than a minute my teacher Julia, could transform loose rice and filling into a tight pyramid shaped bundle. Me, not so much.
Over the space of four hours I tried making chang six times. Every time I carefully watched Julia. Lay and overlap the leaves so. Cup your hands this way. Fill with rice, sauce and meat. Turn, fold, press … and if you’re Julia, Voilà! a perfectly formed pyramid. If you’re me … Boo! a sad handful of rice and filling.
What makes bak chang different from joong or zongzi? That would be the flavor and the fillings. Bak chang is heavily seasoned with garlic, shallots, ginger, spring onions, coriander, five spices, three types of soya sauce, dried shrimp, pork, mushrooms etc. Nonya chang goes one step further. Characteristic of Peranakan dishes, it is tinted blue with an extract of pea flowers – adding yet another couple hours to the total preparation time.
My favorite was kee chang. It is made solely with sticky rice but soaked overnight with a mysterious yellow alkaline crystal. The alkaline changes the color to an amber yellow and the rice becomes more gummy and chewy. Unlike the others, kee chang is sweet and served with gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup, honey or kaya (coconut jam). It is also good with dollops of golden orange marmalade. Nice with coffee but perfect with tea.
Photos taken in Singapore. July 2020