Bamboo leaf sticky rice parcels
This is the tale of a poet, the fall of a kingdom, a dragon boat and rice parcels thrown into a river.
Over 2000 years ago, there was a patriotic poet in China named Qu Yuan. Apart from being a well known poet, he was also an official in the kingdom of Chu and well loved by the locals. Living in a period full of war, Qu Yuan became so distraught at news that his state had been conquered, he threw himself into the river in grief.
To protect Qu Wan’s body from being eaten by fish, people threw rice wrapped parcels into the river. The intention was to distract the fish while boats along the river tried to retrieve the body of the beloved man. The Dragon Boat Festival which is held on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Lunar calendar each year commemorates this event.
During the festival, glutinous rice parcels (aka zongzi) are eaten echoing the rice parcels of lore. True or not, it’s both a tragic and charming story. That’s if a tale of suicide, war and the threat of dead bodies being nibbled by fish can be called charming.
There are regional differences with how zongzi are wrapped and what fillings (if any) are included inside.
When I was a child, I wanted to fit in and be like everyone else but part of me loved that I was ethnically Chinese and ate different things. Gleefully, I remember disgusting my classmates with my favourite food of grass jelly. I guess it was easy to feel special when I didn’t grow up in an area with many Asian people.
My family makes rice parcels in the village style of my maternal grandparents. My mum actually independently learned how to make these and taught it to her mother. The bamboo leaves flavour the rice, the pork provides fat and the sandy texture of the salted duck yolk adds seasoning and richness. Rice parcels freeze well in a plastic bag and can easily keep for two months in the freezer.
I did a little search online to see what’s out there and discovered that my family wraps these differently from the norm (or at least what is commonly found online). We use far more leaves but the resulting rice parcel is more uniformly pyramid-like in shape. It’s fascinating reading how other people create the same thing.
This is a savoury rice parcel and I’ll be posting a sweet version later this week. I know it’s a lot of work but the homemade version is so much better than the commercial variety. Bought zongzi have a mushier texture as the rice is soaked prior to cooking. This means it can be cooked for a shorter period (more efficient if you’re trying to make money!) but results in soggy, less distinct rice grains.
It’s also usual to find zongzi with split mung beans inside which I personally abhor. It’s a cheap filler and doesn’t add much in my own opinion. But many people do love the sandy texture that the mung beans adds to the final result. Shitake mushrooms, whole red beans, pork marinated with five spice and peanuts are also common fillings. To each their own!
Feeds: 18 people (children will probably eat half a rice parcel)
Start cooking: At least 8 hours in advance
Bamboo leaf rice parcels (zongzi)
- Fresh or dried bamboo leaves (allow 5 per wrap) and an extra 10 leaves for breakages
- 1 kg x glutinous rice, washed until water runs clear and then drained
- 500 grams x Chinese roast pork, cut into approximately 1 inch cubes (preferably from the front quarter/shoulder cut)
- 18 x salted duck egg yolks, cut in half
- 18 x fresh or dried whole chestnuts, peeled (optional)
- Vegetable oil
- Kitchen string
- Let’s prep the bamboo leaves first. These can be found at your local Asian supermarket and will be tied together in batches within the package. Using kitchen scissors, cut off the pointy end and tough stalks, leaving the bunches tied together.
- Fill a large pot with 3-4 litres of water and slide in the leaves. Bring the pot to boil and cook for 10 minutes. This will make the leaves more pliable and also soften out the harsh tannin taste. This needs to be done for either fresh or dried bamboo leaves.
- Once softened, remove the leaves from the pot. Release the ties and rinse the leaves until water runs clear. Drain the leaves in a colander for at least an hour or overnight.
- Rinse the glutinous rice until the water runs clear and drain in a colander for an hour.
- Once drained, pour the rice into a large mixing bowl and fold in 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons of salt.
- Prep an area where you’ll make the rice parcels. Lay the duck egg yolks, rice, pork, chestnuts, drained leaves and kitchen string out.
- Select two bamboo leaves that are of a similar size. Bend both at the middle, twisting so they create a cone shape where they meet, ensuring that it’s sealed at the bottom. Open your palm and place the pointy end of the cone down so it rests between two of your fingers.
- Add a spoon of rice to the bottom of the cone.
- Place a piece of pork on top and add more rice. Then layer on top more pork, the egg yolk halves and the chestnut. If needed, slide in another bamboo leaf at either side so the contents doesn’t spill.
- Cover with just enough rice so it’s completely covered. You will use about 120 grams of rice per zongzi.
- Add another bamboo leaf on top. Then fold in the bamboo leaves until your rice parcel is enclosed firmly. You don’t want it loose as the zongzi should retain its shape once cooked. Tie with kitchen string.
- Continue with remaining ingredients until all of the rice, egg and chestnuts are finished. You will make approximately 18 parcels and may have leftover pork and bamboo leaves.
- To cook, neatly layer in the rice parcels in a large stock pot so they don’t move around a lot. Pour in 2 litres of hot water and set onto the stove to boil. Add more water until rice parcels are completely submerged by a couple of inches of water. Cover the pot and simmer gently for 6 hours, topping up with more boiling water as needed (probably every 90 minutes or so).
Cut the strings and peel away the bamboo leaves to serve warm, alongside a pot of fragrant tea. I like ‘lychee red’ scented Chinese tea which reminds me of my childhood.
To reheat, gently simmer the parcels in water for 15-20 minutes. For frozen parcels, simmer for 30-40 minutes. I don’t recommend microwaving them as it ruins the texture by drying the zongzi out too much.