August 5, 2008 by Joyce Wu
One of the best parts of being at my parents’ house for a month while I help take care of my father is cooking with my mother. It brings us closer together and helps erode from our memories whatever teenage sassiness or critical comments (I won’t point fingers) may have previously stood in the way of our bonding.
It’s nice to know that recipes can get handed down from generation to generation and that I’m not getting everything from epicurious.com. I’m also lucky that I come from a family whose recipes are blessedly devoid of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup or Ritz crackers. Though before I really knock those things, I should remind myself that a) I am a junk food junkie and b) of something I once saw on an episode of Frasier. I’m paraphrasing here (and god help me for doing something as banal as paraphrasing a quote from a mid-brow sitcom) but one character said “We’ve embraced the peasant cuisines of France and Italy. Why not embrace the peasant food in our own back yard?”
I’ll devote a future post to American peasant cuisine, but for tonight, I’ll stick to that of the Far East. During the Duanwu (or Dragon Boat) Festival in China, people celebrate by eating zhongzi, dumplings similar to tamales but made out of glutinous rice and filled with either sweet red bean paste or savory meats and wrapped in bamboo leaves.
I recently made a batch with my mother and you’ll have to forgive the lack of exact measurements, as she made enough for a whole village. (A number of people were clamoring for them.) For those less ambitious in scale, as long as you have a relatively good sense of proportion, the following recipe should serve as a good guideline for how to make traditional zhongzi.
-Pork butt (yes, I said butt) cut into 1/2 inch cubes
-Long grain sweet rice
-Dried shitake mushrooms (available in nearly any Asian grocery store)
-Fried scallions (also available at Asian grocery stores, it comes in plastic pouches)
-Chestnuts (jarred or packaged ones work just fine and are much less hassle than finding fresh ones and they’re out of season during the summer anyway)
-Bamboo leaves (again, available in Asian grocery stores)
– a Steamer (bamboo or metal)
– Kitchen twine
Soak the bamboo leaves and the rice in water overnight or for at least three hours.
Soak the dried shitake mushrooms in water for about three hours. You’ll notice that they become much more pliable and fresh-looking when they’re done soaking.
When all the tedious soaking is done, you finally get to move on to the actual cooking. Slice the mushrooms into pencil-width pieces. Marinate the pork butt in a few splashes of rice wine, soy sauce and pepper.
Heat canola oil on medium high heat. Stir in the fried scallions and sautee with the mushrooms. Add the pork butt and lower the heat when slightly browned.
Drain the rice but don’t make it completely dry. Some moisture on the grains will allow them to steam in the wok. Stir the rice into the wok and add some more soy sauce, a pinch of kosher salt and about a tablespoon more rice wine. Keep stirring and flipping the ingredients so that everything cooks evenly (about 5 minutes.)
Remember, nothing will be completely cooked or edible at this stage, so don’t panic if the rice is still a bit stiff and the meat isn’t cooked all the way through. It will all get taken care of in the steamer. Think of putting your zhongzi in the steamer like sending your kids off to college. You’ve prepared them the best you can and you just have to trust that they’ll make it on their own. Of course, you may have to send them money every now and again and they might come back on the weekends to do laundry, but that’s the risk you’ll have to run.
Before all that, though, there’s still a lot more preparation and tender loving care to give, so let’s return to the wok. Transfer the rice mixture into a large bowl. It should look like a pilaf and have a nice goldeny brown hue.
Remove the bamboo leaves from the water and lay them onto a plate. Take two leaves and layer them so that any holes or tears in one leaf are covered by the other. With the stem side facing away from you, fold the leaves in half and then into a “U” shaped pocket, making sure that there are no holes at the bottom.
Scoop out some of the rice mixture and stuff it into the pocket. My mother’s rule of thumb is at least two pieces of pork and a few mushroom slices per zhongzi. Add a chestnut. Make sure not to pack too much into the zhongzi because it’s a disaster if it spills out of the leaves. Fill the pocket with as much as you think can be safely contained. I was a bit too conservative in the beginning and made quite a few “baby” zhongzi that were about half the size of my mother’s.
When you’re done stuffing, fold the top of the leaf over to cover the exposed side so that the entire thing is wrapped. Again, be extra careful about holes. Make sure you fold everything in such a way that none of the rice mixture can escape. Tightly wrap the kitchen twine around the equator of the zhongzi to hold the whole thing together.
Add the zhongzi to a steamer on top of boiling water. Allow them to steam for about an hour. Try not to cry when you think about how they’re all grown up.