How to make Bak Zhang
October 20, 2021
When trying to envision how I would go about food recipe blog post assignment for class, my priority was to be able to experiment with a new technique that wouldn't ruin the food even if I failed. This way, regardless of what happened, I would get to eat dinner.
When brainstorming ideas, I thought of bak zhang (glutinous rice dumplings), alternatively known as zongzi in Cantonese, where the wrapping is half the boast. Relatively confident that I could dish out some pretty tasty filling, I settled on this food choice despite ominous warnings from folk on how much prep would be required for this dish.
Bak zhang is the Hokkien name for it, and is the variation that my family makes. This dish is as regional as it gets. and can come with any number of modifications in seasoning, filling, and wrapping style from place to place, family to family. Perfect for this class.
When I asked my mother for her bak zhang recipe, as expected she pulled one off the internet with a list of her own modifications:
A TALE OF SPARSE BAK ZHANG
Across the board, when friends and family heard I was going to attempt bak zhang, they asked, "How many do you plan to make?" to which I replied, "Six."
This answer was also uniformly met with skepticism, mirth, horror, and bewilderment. Why go through all the trouble of prepping the fillings only to make six bak zhang? This is not the spirit of zhang making!
After all, during the Dragonboat festival season, which is when bak zhang is traditionally made and eaten, the zhangs are made en masse then strung up in the kitchen somewhere and distributed freely to visitors and hungry family members alike. You can find boxes of loose zhang at supermarkets in Chinatown, and also find aunties and grandmas selling their homemade zhangs on the Spadina-Dundas streetcorner seasonally! Every time, the zhang sit in crowds of 30-50, charming in their multitude. To only make six would be some counter-cultural, thoughtless nonsense.
But I didn't want to deal with the back pain that comes with this type of labour-intensive cooking, so six it was, to my mother's ongoing amusement.
A casual zhang session from the Gui kitchen some years ago
I WANT IN ON THE KNOW-HOW
For most of the process, I was reflecting on Harry Mathews' Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double) which I loved reading.
My favourite writing schtick of Mathews' was his tendency to drolly drop new prep information with obscure time signifiers. Truly, they were what you might call, "a hard flex":
"Earlier, you will have..."
"No later than the previous evening..."
When trying to figure out my production schedule for bak zhang, the time markers were also never clearly indicated. This was an in-crowd of knowing cooks talking to other knowing cooks! Let me in!
After some detailed plotting and a schedule of things to acquire and prep that spanned over two days, I set about gathering some communal tips I'd been hearing. The steps, after all, are often somewhat negotiable depending on the kitchen hacks.
Soaking the bamboo leaves way ahead of time turned out to be unnecessary if you used warmer water. Rice did need to be soaked, but also needed to be dried, so an overnight soak allowed a morning dry for an evening fry. The recipe I used had separate (faster) steps if you cooked with an instant pot, which my mother told me to follow, having forgotten that I'd melted the instant pot lid on a still-warm stove element months ago.
So I went the traditional route, with a few of my own modifications added along the way.
Ingredients, quantities and other vital information located in here
The background song in video, "Bon-Bon-Bereppa - Theme Shinobu" comes from one of my favourite animes, Honey and Clover.
PERSONAL HACKS AND REFLECTIONS
The most notable substitution for me was the switch from regular chestnuts to water chestnuts. I do not like the mushy chewy texture of steamed chestnut but love the crunchy taste of water chestnut, and so this "unorthodox" (to the Guis at least) ingredient made it in.
I also doubled the quantity of mushrooms from the recipe, because I love them.
Lastly, besides rehydrating dried shiitake with a generous dash of rice wine (to balance out the musty flavour the dried funghi seem to accumulate), I also seasoned my rice-frying step with a few drops of sesame oil.
The process was really smooth and my production schedule worked well to allow me to prep this between meetings, classes and other work I had to do.
My wrapping skills were commendable given my lack of experience. I attribute this to my paper and bookmaking practice — familiarity with fibrous materials.
They were dinky and a tad ugly compared to my mother's, but they looked like the real deal! I loved my six bak zhang. They boiled beautifully and have been eaten with great relish over the past few days.
At the end of a long evening of cooking and cleaning, I updated my mother on my progress and received the ultimate seal of approval from home-cooking circles,
"Very good for first time".